Art review: The madness of King George

An exhibition remembers a time when England was ruled not from London but from Dorset.

Dorset County Museum's current exhibition, Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County, seeks to display the figures that shaped the history of the county. The pictures, all painted between 1725 and 1800, are rooted in a particularly fertile area of Dorset's long history -- it was a time during which it feared invasion by France, yet, along with other counties in England, moved through an intense period of unrest among the agricultural labourers who formed the economic backbone of the region.

At the other end of the social spectrum dwelled a local aristocracy who, almost without exception, owned houses in London, as well as in Dorset. By the mid 18th century, London could be reached in a day and, as the exhibition's curator Gwen Yarker observes, "fashions, ideas and intellectual currents which shaped 18th-century London quickly percolated into the county." Dorset was not an isolated rural county.

A county-bred based military officer, James Frampton, brought back to Dorset an eye-witness account of the suppression of the crowd by French troops in Paris in 1791, prompting the painting of the military officers who were therefore henceforth to be responsible for, as Frampton put it, defending the county against "all innovations the followers of the French system might try to introduce". Between 1794 and 1799, 13 of the Militia's officers sat for portraits by Thomas Beach. These canvasses survive in a private collection and four of them -- including those of Lord Milton and James Frampton -- are on display in the exhibition.

Dorset has quirky relevance to the reign of King George III, who visited the county quite frequently to drink its water -- which, it was believed, would cure his madness. The defeat of revolutionary France was work that was punctuated by courtly visits to Weymouth, and as Yarker amusedly notes: "from 1795 he and his court effectively ruled the British Empire not from a city the size of Rome or Vienna . . . but from Weymouth".

It perhaps goes without saying that George's portrait, from the studio of Sir William Beechey, is in the exhibition too.

"Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County", at Dorset County Museum, High West Street, Dorchester, closes on 30 April


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I don't even believe in God – so I was surprised to find myself caring so much about The Young Pope

The Young Pope stars Jude Law as a pious yet sensuous pontiff. Even so, I didn't expect it to matter me whether or not the character believes.

In The Young Pope – made largely in Europe, sold around the world and broadcast here on Sky Atlantic (Thursdays, 9pm) – the chiselled dude in question is not even remotely a moderniser. It’s 2016 or thereabouts and his elevation has come as a surprise (is it the result of skulduggery or a miracle?) even to the cardinals who elected him. Yet contrary to the expectations raised by his relatively tight, fortysomething bum and the Cherry Coke Zero with which he begins each day, this pontiff does not believe that priests should be free to marry or nuns permitted to take Mass; liberation theology is just so much muck on the soles of his red leather slippers.

Such traditionalism might once have flagged a dirty secret – a woman on the side, perhaps, or even a man – but Pius XIII (Jude Law) stinks of cigarette smoke, not hypocrisy (his cigarettes are kept in a velvet pouch, with an ingenious ashtray that resembles a pocket watch). Oh, but he is bloodless. “My only sin is that my conscience does not accuse me of anything,” he says in the confessional, not even bothering to whisper.

What autocratic piety, and how it speaks to our strange and conservative times – the age of Isis, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – though here it comes with a subversively ambiguous sex appeal. One minute, the Vatican’s female head of marketing is trembling excitedly at the Holy Father’s financially suicidal pronouncement that his image will not appear on any merchandise. The next, we watch as he awaits the arrival of a helicopter, his zucchetto held in place by a wide-brimmed hat so camp that it might have come straight from the wardrobe of Quentin Crisp.

When he rails at the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square, accusing them in his first homily of having moved too far from God, it’s at once uncomfortable and thrilling. Even as you want to run away, you long to kiss his ring. What to make of all this? In liberal circles, as Tony Blair discovered, Catholicism is deemed beyond the pale. Yet here it is, disguised as an Armani ad, its internal debates played out wittily and compellingly by one fine actor after another.

My feelings about it are strong. The work of the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), it couldn’t be more to my taste if I’d written it myself. Theatrically grand to the point of being overblown, it is also clever, witty, mysterious, provocative, surreal and occasionally silly. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and nothing in it is wholly expected, from the sight of Diane Keaton in a wimple (she plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised the orphan pope and has rushed to Rome to be by his side) to the singular logistics of the Apostolic Palace (beneath Pius’s desk is a green button, there to be pressed whenever he’s had enough of a visitor, at which point a novice rushes in and announces that it’s time for his “snack”). In episode two (aired 27 October), a kangaroo appears, as mesmerised by the Holy Father as any animal ever was by St Francis, and we catch sight of Keaton in her nightwear: a slogan T-shirt that pokes saucy fun at her marriage to God.

Law, putting in his best performance since he starred as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, is magnificent: charming, cruel, unknowable, mannequin-like in his watered-silk vestments. His sheer poise! He uses it like a sacrament. To my surprise, I find that the question of whether or not Pius believes in God – impossible to tell, so far, though he is certainly having trouble hearing Him – matters to me (I’m surprised because I don’t believe in Him).

Law, however, is pretty close to being upstaged by the Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who plays Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s shifty, oleaginous and thoroughly institutionalised secretary of state. Voiello’s only confessed sin so far involves his lustful obsession with the tiny but voluptuous statue the Venus of Willendorf – but he may soon have to commit all manner of holy misdeeds if he is to save the Church from what he regards as Pius’s remorseless and ­brutal literalism. Unless, that is, its salvation should lie in such intransigence. And if Sorrentino intends to be truly subversive, this is the daring direction in which he will go. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage