All at sea

Portraiture - Judith Palmer on the preening and prancing of our heroes of empire

''I can't get used to the wig," the sea god admits sheepishly, poking a stiff blond curl under his head-dress of turquoise ostrich feathers. Rosetted like a gymkhana pony, and with his mini-skirted posterior garlanded with embroidered seaweed, the sea god lowers his eyes to the floor, where the shock of seeing his stockinged legs disappearing into duck-egg blue high-heels sends him skuffling off to hide himself behind the spangled mousseline skirts of the fairy queen.

Amid a fanfare of trumpets, the sea god joins the naiads, gladiators, chickens and sultans swarming up a majestic pair of curving white stairs to reconquer the Queen's House.

The flamboyant army are Wimbledon College of Art students, wearing exquisite recreations of the masque costumes that Inigo Jones designed for the Stuart court. The occasion is the reopening of the Queen's House in Greenwich, the gloriously decorous, Palladian-style villa designed by Inigo Jones, now refitted in its new guise as an art gallery.

It is a wonderful space: as airily tranquil as the Serpentine Gallery, and with views more enticing than Tate Modern's - reaching down on one side through the Naval College to the Thames, and up on the other side over a voluptuous swell of green hillside to Christopher Wren's Royal Observatory.

Currently part of the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House was once a royal summer retreat, commissioned in 1616 by Anne, the wife of James I, and completed in 1635, when it became the premier cavorting location of Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria - their "house of delight", where they could prance about in fancy dress, playing out their amorous fantasies as Cupid and Psyche, and enjoy Charles's famous art collection. These elements of art, theatricality and fancy dress live on in the Queen's House portrait exhibition, "A Sea of Faces".

The future King James II took preening to a particularly ludicrous level when painted in his role of Lord High Admiral by Henri Gascar in 1672. Represented as a Roman hero, James stands haughtily on the shore; at his feet lies an empty suit of armour, like the discarded carapace of some camp sea-creature. In lime-green stockings, he steps forth, with long ringlets cascading over a golden breastplate, festooned in bows and curlicues.

Nearby is a 1632 painting of Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, who kept the fleet on the parliamentary side throughout the civil war. With legs like a Las Vegas showgirl, he shows off his lacy cuffs and the pompons on his shoes for the painter Daniel Mytens the Elder. Behind him is a low marble balustrade, overhead is a swooping, theatrical velvet curtain and, off in the distance, an unreal glimpse of ships at sea.

No death, no pain, no action. For 200 years, the pose remains the same. Wig lengths go up and down, but there he always stands: the static naval commander puffing out his chest, with his favourite sea battle painted in a teeny gap behind the crook of his arm (the ships were added in separately by a specialist marine painter). Props are limited: a big cannon, a long telescope, the point of an up-turned anchor. This is a male world but, with so much hair and fabric, you scarcely notice.

The familiar faces of all those heroes of empire begin to pass in a blur - Captain Cook, Captain Nelson and Captain Hardy - faces painted by the great figures of British portraiture such as Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney and Joshua Reynolds. With the Second World War came vigorous portraits of men actually at sea - sketches of comrades on cramped submarines, portraits painted on bedsheets in POW camps; portraits of men such as the plucky Stoker Martin, with his Adam's apple of iron, or the merchant seaman Ladbrooke, with his binoculars at the ready and his thick black hair ruffling in a stiff Atlantic breeze. And that is what has been missing: the wind. There has been not the flapping of a frockcoat nor the fanning of a cheek - every last admiral has been as eerily becalmed as the Ancient Mariner.

But downstairs (down the world-famous spiral tulip stairs) it is a different story. Another Place, by the Scottish artists Dalziel and Scullion, is a mesmerising video portrait of the locals of a small Aberdeenshire coastal village. Loose strands of hair, whisked by the wind, flicker insistently across their mouths, as one wistful face dissolves into another. An elfin young girl, an elderly woman and a dreamy young man each gaze out silently from the shore, while behind them lies a shifting backdrop of buffeted surf and marram grass.

The National Maritime Museum has for several years been establishing a vigorous programme of contemporary art commissions (including pieces by Tacita Dean, Stefan Gec and Bill Fontana). The lower galleries of the Queen's House now provide a dedicated space for new work. Working as the artist in residence, the London photographer Faisal Abdu'Allah has created an enigmatic series, "An Affair of Honour", photographing his friends in historical outfits and screen-printing these images on to large sheets of copper. Abdu'Allah wants his images of black men in doublets to stand without explanation or contextualisation - as baffling to today's audience as he finds the roomfuls of arrogant admirals on the floors above.

For information on the Queen's House, call 020 8312 6565 or visit

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Best of young British