Installation view of the Beauty room

King Charles II, his red cape borne aloft by cherubs, sits enthroned on a mound of prancing steeds, muscular servants, tritons and nymphs.

So what is this crazy hodge-podge painted by the Neapolitan artist Antonio Verrio all about? Verrio’s Sea Triumph, a forerunner of Britannia Rules the Waves, depicts the King as a triumphant victor, an image of maritime supremacy celebrating the Restoration, as the curators of British Baroque: Power and Illusion at Tate Britain explain.

But does this writhing profusion of beasts and floating figures give an impression of order and control?  It’s really quite chaotic. And no one seems to be paying a lot of attention to the precariously perched Charles, who is steadying himself by resting his foot on a nymph’s shoulder.

Honoré Pelle Charles II Marble 129cm high

Like the spiralling bust of the King by another Continental artist, Honoré Pelle, Verrio worked in the Baroque style, which had already prevailed at the court of Charles II’s father. The intention is clearly to pretend that the business of Royalty is continuing uninterruptedly as usual. Kings are like absolute Gods, masters of all they survey.  

The irony was of course that the world had just been turned upside down. In the previous century the Dutch States General had risen against absolutist Catholic Spain. In England, the Protestant Roundheads, led by Oliver Cromwell, had overthrown Charles I.

The evolution of the Baroque was intimately connected with the power of the Roman Catholic Church, the Papacy and its counter-reformation. They sought to mesmerise and entrap the masses in a flourish of theatrical display, fantasy presented as something real and unreal at the same time.

Benedetto Gennari, The Annunciation 1686

But interpreting any style as simply an expression of dominant ideologies is too simplistic. This new style, has its own – connected but also independent – evolution. Indeed, within the Baroque we can discover, sometimes as in a glass darkly, evidence of the turbulent nature of the 17th century.

The Baroque is characterised by complex and dynamic movement through real and illusory spaces. In comparison with its predecessors, the Renaissance and Mannerist styles, it set into motion that which had previously been static, serene, controlled and balanced. These were the decades when the notion of a hierarchical universe revolving around the earth, the old “centre”, didn’t hold anymore.

In Britain Isaac Newton absorbed Galileo and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and became president of the newly established Royal Society in 1703. Indeed, the word “baroque” was originally used to describe a pearl that was not perfectly round but uneven.

In the late Baroque period covered by the Tate’s show – 1660-1714 – the monarchy was in recovery from civil war and a revolution which climaxed in the execution of Charles I in 1649, outside his own Banqueting House where not long before Rubens had immortalised the absolute right of kings in a grand ceiling.

It was the Convention Parliament of April-May 1660 that recalled Charles’ son from exile in the Netherlands. Charles II was the first king not to summon Parliament. Instead, Parliament summoned him, as Christopher Hill, the great historian of the period, put it.

Behind the over-the-top display of monarchic grandeur, the Restoration of 1660 was actually a tumultuous period during which the rising capitalist class consolidated its political power. This took place in prolonged constitutional struggles between king, the aristocracy and the rising merchant classes represented by Parliament.

When Charles’ brother and successor James II’s pro-Catholicism became too overwheening, he was overthrown. In 1688 William of Orange invaded Britain with a Dutch army of 35,000 men. He and his wife Mary were installed in what came to be known as the Glorious Revolution.

Decades earlier, the Restoration had begun with ruthless brutality. In October 1660 ten of the men who had signed the king’s death warrant were hung, drawn and quartered. On January 1, 1661, a last-ditch uprising against the new king, led by Thomas Venner, was put down brutally.   That same month the corpses of Oliver Cromwell and his co-parliamentarians, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton were exhumed and posthumously executed, so strong was the political need to obliterate the very ghosts of the English republic and Cromwell’s Protectorate.

There was indeed some public joy at the return of Charles II. But, as one contemporary observer put it, those who were unhappy at the Restoration, “durst not oppose the current by seeming otherwise”. As Hill wrote: “We do not know what the unfree thought, for in 1660 the shutters close. Henceforth they again exist only to be ruled…”

Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland,
posing as the Virgin Mary, by Peter Lely

It is this often suffocating rule of the “men of property” that so often pervades as you walk through the ten big spaces at Tate Britain. But there are still chinks in the propaganda armour. All the gorgeous silks, pearls and mythological accoutrements can’t disguise the look of imprisoned boredom on so many of the aristocratic ladies.

Lely depicted Barbara Villiers, one of the King’s mistresses, as a shepherdess, surely a conceit that in some way revealed a longing desire to get away from the artifice of the court to some wilder place? Of course it’s silly, but it looks forward to the 18th century when, just as the French monarchy was in decay, it fantasised about the life of the rural poor.

It’s not all pomp and circumstance. There are many delightful and intriguing discoveries to be made in this blockbustery show. John Michael Wright’s ethereal portrait of Margaret Spencer eschews the bland formulaic depiction of female beauty and takes us into a thoughtful, even sad world of a woman’s mind.  Godfrey Kneller, like Lely, established a veritable factory churning out images of the rich, famous and not so famous. But when he painted the writer-diplomat Matthew Prior in 1700, he evokes an androgenous Sargentesque personality in velvety chocolate garb.

Matthew Prior by Godfrey Kneller, 1700

How different Prior appears from the pompous bewigged figures who populate the last room, where the new political Whig leaders are assembled in the Whig Junto! These were the leaders of the Whig party which was a driving force against absolutism and for constitutional monarchy. At their feet is a globe of the earth showing the ocean and islands, while a black servant draws back the drapes, signalling imperial ambition and existence of the slave trade as a source of their wealth.

The most shocking image of all is the Benedetto Gennari’s Hortense Mancini, depicted as Diana, goddess of the hunt. Mancini, who was another of Charles II’s many mistresses, is surrounded by dogs and black servants, who also wear collars around their necks. You will need to grit your teeth when looking at this.

Jan van der Vaar: Trompe l’oeil of a violin and
bow hanging on a door at Chatsworth

For relief from the sometimes cloying displays of courtly decadence, go to the spaces devoted to country mansions, the beautiful flower paintings and masterpieces of illusion. British Baroque is several exhibitions rolled into one. But the one thing that is missing is the great mass of the “unfree”.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion is at Tate Britain until 19 April.