WORCESTER — If you’re planning to take your sweetheart to see “Love Stories from the National Portrait Gallery, London,” a juicy look at love in Western art since the Renaissance, know that many of these stories, as the great romantic Anne of Green Gables put it, are tragical.
Portraits gin up desire. The ones in this delicious and soapy exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum express changing values about love and marriage and lay bare power dynamics of class, gender, sexuality, and, to a lesser extent, race. Couples whose love lives have been tabloid fodder are here: Harry and Meghan, Charles and Diana, John and Yoko, Paul and Linda. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh are present, as are Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. There’s a skin-tinglingly cozy video of David Beckham sleeping, by “50 Shades of Grey” director Sam Taylor-Johnson.
The National Portrait Gallery, London, is closed for renovation until 2023, and so it has sent this touring show on the road. Worcester is the first stop. Of course, gorgeous people captivating the public is nothing new. Consider the tale of Lady Emma Hamilton, a low-born maid and actress, mistress of aristocrat Charles Greville. In 1782, Greville commissioned George Romney to paint her. She enthralled the portraitist, who went on to depict her hundreds of times. In a 1785 painting, the bend of her body and her over-the-shoulder glance invite delectation; her white garb conjures Ancient Greece or Rome. Romney’s paintings made Hamilton a celebrity.
Like many relationships involving desire, the one between artist and muse can be nurturing or damaging. Hamilton lost no agency in her connection to Romney; she was a performer and knew how to embody a soft, smart, feminine allure. Their collaboration gave her cachet. Her knack for drama no doubt influenced the course of her life.
In time, Greville tired of his mistress and palmed her off on his uncle William Hamilton, a British ambassador in Naples and a widower 35 years Hamilton’s senior. They married and lived companionably. Then Hamilton met British war hero Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, seen here in a heroic portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott.
Hamilton went to greet Nelson as he sailed victoriously into Naples after the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
“Emma took her own boat, sailed up beside his and clambered up on deck,” writes author and historian Kate Williams in the show’s catalog. “All glamour and flowing hair, much taller than Nelson, she declared ‘O God, is it possible,’ and fainted into his arms.”
He was besotted, and moved in with William and Emma, to the amusement of the British press. Sadly, after her husband’s death in 1803 and Nelson’s in 1805, Hamilton couldn’t sustain her frothy aristocratic lifestyle. Rejected by the society she had beguiled, she died in poverty in 1815.
“Love Stories” — which is organized by the National Portrait Gallery’s Lucy Peltz, head of collections displays (Tudor to Regency) and senior curator, 18th century collections, and Claire C. Whitner, Worcester Art Museum’s director of curatorial affairs and curator of European art — is chock full of such heart-palpitating tales. Harry and Meghan, duke and duchess of Sussex, snuggle in an official engagement photo by Alexi Lubomirski. It’s a jarring contrast to the physical distance between Charles and Diana, prince and princess of Wales, in Patrick Lichfield’s wedding portrait, which foreshadows the chasm in their marriage.
Official and commissioned portraits present a tailored image to the outside world: This is who we are. They frequently convey nuances the couple may not be aware of. In a pair of portraits by Michele Gordigiani, poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose courtship and marriage were conducted in secret, appear side by side. Robert is perceptive and serene; Elizabeth, who was frailer, is intense and dark.
In Ford Madox Brown’s 1872 portrait of Henry and Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the Victorian politician, who was blind, sits with his suffragist wife.
They are clearly partners, working together. She has been transcribing. One hand, holding a pen, rests on his shoulder, and the other holds a paper before him. Her gaze expresses volumes about this relationship: Discerning, alert to him, reading him.
Composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears, partners for close to 40 years, pose side by side in Kenneth Green’s 1943 portrait, Britten’s shoulder nestled against Pears’s. It’s more than just friendly, although hardly romantic, and painted 24 years before same-sex acts were decriminalized in England. Their story is happier than that of Oscar Wilde and the poet Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas — Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency.
The Bloomsbury Group of avant-garde artists, writers, and social reformers flouted such restrictions in the first half of the 20th century, famously engaging in open marriages and polyamorous partnerships. Writer Lytton Strachey, who was gay, lived with artist Dora Carrington. In her warm, 1916 portrait of him reading in bed, he is near enough to touch, yet lost in his book.
Portraits have always been a medium of intimate communication; Henry VIII wooed Anne Boleyn by sending her a miniature of himself. As photography, film, and video became more accessible, they fed a public hunger for images of love and the torrid tales behind them.
The 1931 wedding of Ras Prince Monolulu to Nellie Adkins in London garnered rabid press coverage. He was a Black racetrack tipster, she the white daughter of a helmet maker. The attention was perhaps as much for the groom’s dramatic flair as it was for their union. Ras Prince Monolulu was born Peter Carl Mackay in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and his life story was a tale he spun. He claimed at points to be from Ethiopia, to have been shipwrecked, and to have been married six times, although evidence points to three marriages. He was a man in the public eye, creating an image that sated the public imagination.
Portraits express a yearning to be seen, to be accepted, to be loved. We all go after that in our own ways, some flamboyantly, some guardedly. “Love Stories” invites us to experience romance’s satisfactions and upheavals in the safest way — vicariously.
LOVE STORIES FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON
At Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through March 13. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org