A History of Art in England (16): Enter Antonio Verrio

Portraiture continued to dominate the visual culture of post-1660 Restoration Britain – and we’ll look at artists such as Peter Lely, Mary Beale and Godfrey Kneller next time, as they bring us the characters of the ‘new flamboyancy’ that was Charles II’s court.

Yet as John Rothenstein notes in “An Introduction to English Art”, that dominance of portraiture was, to an extent, waning. For example, the art of landscape, he writes, “was coming unobtrusively into being” and at Dulwich Picture Gallery there is a painting by Robert Streater (or Streeter; 1621-1679):

Described… as ‘A Large Landscift don by Streeker…’, this is one of only two easel pictures documented as by Streeter, and a rare authenticated example of a landscape painted in England in this period.

Streater, Robert, 1621-1679; Landscape

“Landscape” [Dulwich Picture Gallery, c/o artuk.org]

However, it is a much more theatrical art that became the fashion of the day. With Rubens’ Banqueting House and the Gentileschis’ work at Greenwich as precedents, wall- and ceiling-painting in the Baroque style were de rigeur in palaces and country houses through to the 1720s.

Of course the “British Baroque: Power and Illusion” exhibition at Tate Britain is closed due to the lockdown, but on the website there is an excellent Exhibition Guide where, as you’ll see, many artists – as had been the case over the centuries – were invited or had migrated to Britain from Europe. As well as artists and crafts-workers bringing skills and ideas into Britain, travel to Europe – among the royal and aristocratic classes – stimulated new desires and expectations. When, after the beheading of Charles I, his supporters fled into exile, they found themselves in the Netherlands or France. And it was in Paris that the future Charles II grew up, surrounded by astonishing visual splendour – an echo of which he would bring back to London: the theatres were re-opened, the arts of poetry and wit dominated the salons, everything was show in this extravagant, decadent, scandalous age.

Verrio, Antonio, c.1636-1639-1707; Antonio Verrio

Antonio Verrio: Self-Portrait (c.1700; National Portrait Gallery, artuk.org)

And the leading light of the Baroque revolution was Antonio Verrio; born near Naples in 1636, his artistic skill brought him work throughout Italy and France. It was in Paris that he met Ralph Montagu (1st Duke of Montagu) – appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to the French Court by Charles II – and it was Montagu who invited Verrio across the Channel in March 1672.

For details of Verrio’s life and work in full, the essays by Cecile Brett and Brett Dolman under the Research & Resources page of the British Murals Network are fascinating to read. There is also a brilliant article by Laurel O Peterson in Journal 18 on “A New Golden Age: Politics and Mural Painting at Chatsworth”.

Verrio’s London first commissions were a huge success and he rapidly became “the artist of fashion” and very soon received a commission from the King himself…

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Rambling 3: The Sea Triumph of Charles II [c.1674; Royal Collection Trust]

The King, wearing classical armour, is driven through the water by Neptune in a high, shell-backed chariot. He is accompanied by three female figures carrying crowns and embodying his three kingdoms. Above his head Fame holds a scroll inscribed IMPERIVM OCEANO FAMAM QVI TERMINET ASTRIS (‘Let the boundary of his empire be the ocean and the limits of his fame be the stars’). Time and a female figure hold a wreath and a helmet above his head. In the sky Envy is struck by lightning and chased by putti with the attributes of Peace and Love, and two more putti carry the royal arms on a shield. Beyond are Minerva and Venus looking down on the British fleet below, including a warship flying the royal standard.

Verrio’s next commission from the King was to decorate the north range of Windsor Castle – a massive project that would take ten years to complete with a retinue of assistants: twenty ceilings, three staircases, the King’s Chapel and St George’s Hall.

Today, only three of the ceilings remain [see Royal Collection Trust], including The Banquet of the Gods, in the King’s Dining Room.

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There is also a sketch at the Tate for another ceiling – this time for the Duke of Monmouth – which gives a real sense of Verrio’s detailed and dramatic work:

An Assembly of the Gods

Verrio, Antonio, c.1636-1639-1707; Sketch for a Ceiling Decoration: An Assembly of the Gods

They are extraordinary images; the walls and ceilings open up into the Heavens, gods, goddesses and putti fly in and out of these theatrical trompe l’oeil vaults; on entering such a room the common viewer must have been shocked and transported as reality merged with the imaginary, undermining ‘solid’ architectural space.

Charles II had denizened Verrio, so that as a Catholic he was still allowed to work in Britain, a state that continued under James II’s short reign. However, with the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary in 1688, the Test Act (the underlying principle of which was that only people taking communion in the established Church of England were eligible for public employment – Wikipedia) was strictly re-imposed.

However, a private commission for John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter and his wife Anne at Burghley in Lincolnshire are surely Verrio’s most stunning and outrageous achievements. The BBC has film footage and there’s an essay with images by Rachel Rhine – both of which help envisage the true extent of the decorations.

I can’t resist this image of the Devil’s cat though, it’s jaws, open and menacing, the gates to Hell’s fires:

Rambling 6

The Hell Staircase

Much more pleasant is of course

The Heaven Room:

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(I’m fascinated by that rainbow cutting across the scene above Vulcan’s forge, its brilliant colour heightening the dramatic impact even further. Is it the symbolic representation of the painter’s palette? There is also Verrio’s self-portrait in this scene too – although I can’t find a close-up image – connecting with both the rainbow then, as well as the craft-making, metal-working of the forge/ workshop).

Again, a two-minute clip from the BBC is well worth viewing and there is an article on Burghley House at English Home.

William was eventually persuaded to override the Test Act, and Verrio was invited back to Court to paint ceilings and staircases at Hampton Court, including:

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Queen Anne’s Drawing Room (Historic Royal Palaces).

There were numerous other decorative painters – see British Baroque – including of course James Thornhill, whose work included the great paintings at Greenwich Hospital.


Verrio died on 15th June, 1707. Queen Anne died in 1714, and at her passing we enter a ‘new age’. Mural painting did not however disappear with them; the fashion had moved from royals to aristocrats and so to the newly ascendant classes of bankers, traders and merchants.

In their newly-built out-of-town houses, artists such as Gerard Lanscroon – one of Verrio’s students and colleagues on numerous projects, including Chatsworth (where Verrio ‘immortalised’ the housekeeper, Mrs Hackett (Derbyshire Life) –

Rambling 9

would continue painting extraordinary scenes of gods, goddesses and muses, such as at Beaumont House, Southgate.

Rambling 9

The Beaumont’s Apollo and the Muses


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (16)

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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