Hans Eworth, “Queen Elizabeth I,” circa 1565-70.
Unknown artist, “The Crucifixion,” circa 1395.
Adriaen Van Diest, "The Battle of Lowestoft," crica 1690.
John Constable, "Yarmouth Pier," 1820-22
Adam Birtwistle, “David Hockney,” 2002.
George Stubbs, "A Saddled Bay Hunter," 1786
Sir Claude Francis Barry, "Victory Celebrations," 1919.
Greg Welch has no idea how many paintings and pieces of art he has handled in the 39 years he has worked as chief preparator at the Portland Museum of Art.
Thousands, for sure.
But one thing he’s certain about: “The Crucifixion,” by an unknown English artist, is the oldest piece of art he’s handled. Created around 1395, it’s an image of Jesus nailed to the cross and likely was made as an altar piece for a Roman Catholic church.
Not only is it the oldest piece of art that Welch has handled, it’s likely the oldest art object ever exhibited at the Portland museum, said Karen Sherry, curator of American art and director of collections. (The museum recently hired an assistant curator of European art, Dr. Andrew Eschelbacher, who will curate future shows.)
The image is the first that visitors will see in the new museum exhibition “Treasures of British Art: 1400-2000: The Berger Collection.”
It opens today and is on view through Jan. 4.
It’s unusual for the museum to feature work created over such a wide swath of years, Sherry said. Most exhibitions focus on a single artist’s work over a specific period of years or a style of painting typically bookended by generations.
“It covers such a broad history, it creates a curatorial challenge,” she said.
Sherry has hung the show mostly chronologically, so its layout traces key developments in British art and culture over time. The most recent image in the exhibition is a portrait of the painter David Hockney by Adam Birtwistle, from 2002.
The collection is on long-term loan to the Denver Art Museum, which has assembled the best 50 or so paintings for a traveling exhibition. Portland is the first stop.
The late William Berger and his wife, Bernadette, began collecting British art in the mid-1990s. The exhibition reflects their personal tastes and collecting practices, Sherry said. The Berger family has a home at Prouts Neck in Scarborough.
Visitors get the sense of the grandeur associated with this exhibition when they enter the Great Hall. Heavy curtains drape the doorway to the temporary exhibition galleries, signaling entrance into stately chambers. And the first gallery is filled with paintings of kings and queens, princes and earls.
But first, visitors can ponder the image of Christ nailed to the cross. Sherry explained that it was painted in a refined style with attention to the lush nature of the clothing worn by the crowd gathered below the cross, and the background appears three-dimensional, as if sculpted by a tool.
By the mid-1500s, following Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England, few of these religious altar pieces that had hung in late-Medieval English churches were left. By then, England had moved into the Renaissance, and the next painting in the exhibition is a portrait of a youthful Henry VIII, from 1513. Scholars have established the date of this painting partly based on the young king’s facial hair – or lack of it. He grew a beard in 1519.
The king is shown from mid-chest up, against a flat background. His hands rest on a ledge, and he is staring at a distant object.
From portraits, the show quickly moves into other themes, including pastoral landscapes, seascapes, naval warfare and equestrian scenes.
One of Sherry’s favorite paintings is “A Saddled Bay Hunter,” a portrait of a horse by George Stubbs, from 1786.
Stubbs was considered Britain’s best horse painter because he was both an artist and scientist. In this painting, he represented a large, majestic horse with a thick neck and strong body. He placed the horse in a rolling landscape.
Stubbs endowed the horse “with such a sense of presence and personality,” Sherry said. “It’s representative of a sporting lifestyle. The horse was an important symbol of status, and this painting is just a fabulous example of that.”
The other mark of status and wealth was travel. There are paintings from across England and across Europe, notably one from Rome that shows a long view of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica in a nearly empty countryside. The painting, by David Roberts, is not accurate. While the iconic church is probably rendered accordingly, Roberts set it in a spare landscape “as if Rome had vanished,” noted one reviewer when the painting was displayed in 1856.
On the other hand, “Victory Celebrations,” a painting by Sir Claude Francis Barry from 1919, shows fireworks over London celebrating the end of World War I. Barry made this work in pointillist style, with tiny dots of paint forming the fiery spectacle ablaze in the sky above Big Ben, Parliament and the Westminster Bridge.
And finally, from 2002, we see Adam Birtwistle’s portrait of the painter David Hockney. The artist is set against a black background and shown from the waist up. Red suspenders frame his body, and Hockney grasps a pencil in his uplifted right hand.
Birtwistle completed the portrait with a pink mark across Hockney’s face, a gestural stroke that is Birtwistle’s trademark.
The exhibition is diverse in content and represents an opportunity for visitors to view a range of British art, Sherry said. British art is available in New York and southern New England, but “here in northern New England we do not have significant examples of British art in the museums.”
WHEN: Opens Thursday, on view through Jan. 4; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. After Columbus Day, the museum is closed Mondays.
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square
HOW MUCH: $17 adults, $15 seniors and students with ID, $11 ages 13 to 17, free 12 and younger
INFO: 207-775-6148 or portlandmuseum.org