Art of Power Exhibition – Collection of the 3rd Earl of Bute

The inclusion of Dutch paintings was what drew me to this exhibition and I wasn’t disappointed. It contained pictures from the private collection of the Earls of Bute and is normally housed in Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. The majority of the collection was amassed by the 3rd Earl, John Stuart (1713-1792), and he greets you at the entrance by way of a facsimile of his impressive full length portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds – this exhibition after all is all about him! The Earl was a prominent public figure within Georgian Society and a close friend of King George III, but he was not always popular and this exhibition explores both his art collection and his reputation.

Some of my favourite paintings included a Village with a Bleaching Field created around 1620 by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) and Joos de Momper (1564-1635) who were friends and often collaborated. De Momper would paint the landscape and Brueghel would populate them with figures and this depicts the annual ritual of bleaching linen and is full of fascinating details of village life – where everyone wears a hat….. Another beautiful Dutch painting was Jan Steen’s (1626-1679) A Cock Fight, painted around 1660, and although an unpleasant subject matter, the artist’s wit shines through. A young man holds his defeated bird and the older man, whose bird has obviously won the fight, reaches out to request his winnings. However, the serving woman, who appears otherwise engaged with a young man, is indifferent to his request and the laughing man sitting between the two competitors implies that a payment will never be made. There were many other lovely Dutch and Flemish paintings by artists including Metsu, Teniers, Ruisdael and van Dyck as well as other international artists Zoffany and Lorrain, and the Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay.

I really like the temporary exhibition space in the Hunterian Art Gallery and its shape lent itself well to the recreation of the display of the Earl’s paintings in his home of Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire (which is now a five star hotel and golf resort apparently). Also on display were a series of botanical prints by Johann Sebastian Muller (1715-1792) a German engraver and botanist, who collaborated with the Earl on the production of his publication Botanical Tables, although as Muller had 27 children I’ve no idea where he found the time. The Earl’s botanical interests meant that his advice had been sought by Princess Augusta, the King’s mother, on the creation of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and he later became the first Director of Kew. However, this close association with the King and his mother, along with a belief that he promoted only Scotsmen into prominent positions as well as poor political decisions, made him extremely unpopular and his tenure as Prime Minister was very short, lasting only a year. There were also a series of unflattering political cartoons on display concerning the Earl which called him ‘the boot’ as a pun on his name Bute – you can guess the rest…..

If you love Dutch and Flemish art and are interested in the Scottish Enlightenment, then this is for you. It contains some real gems and, although a small exhibition, I was impressed with the number of original works by good artists. It certainly doesn’t attempt to whitewash his reputation, and he was extremely unpopular in his lifetime, but there is no arguing that he bought some splendid paintings and this is a great opportunity to see works from a private collection.

Don’t Miss A Cock Fight by Jan Steen – full of his usual wit and interesting characters

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If you have a National Art Pass you get half price admission

Further information on the exhibition is here