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Danish-British Portraiture from the Renaissance to the Present Day

HM Queen Margrethe II’s Distinguished Postdoc Fellow | 11/05/2018

The subject of Anglo-Danish portraiture has previously received little attention from researchers and so the aim of the project was to expand our knowledge on the nature and degree of artistic interaction between the two nations from the Renaissance and the 20th century in the field of portraiture. As expected, the connection between the royal houses of Denmark and Britain were responsible for the majority of portraits commissioned during this period. Danish artists increasingly made a name for themselves in Britain and took stylistic inputs such as the idea of the conversation piece with them, while others came into contact with British art more indirectly. In the beginning of the 20th century, exhibitions of Danish art in London and Brighton opened the eyes of a wider British audience to the works of P.S. Krøyer and Vilhelm Hammershøi.
It has become clear during this project, that while art has a unique ability to communicate a message and spread it across borders, this message needs to be followed up both in speech and in writing in order to maintain the interest in the innovative and unique message the artist has to offer his new audience. By supporting artistic expressions across borders and cultures, this can create mutual good will and form the basis for greater international understanding, cooperation and trade.

By HM Queen Margrethe II’s Distinguished Postdoc Fellow, Stefan Pajung, Ph.D., The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle

(Mostly) Of Queens, Princes and International Portrait Artists

It was very fitting that the project was concluded and some of its noteworthy results presented at a conference at The National Portrait Gallery in April 2018 with participation of scholars from Britain and Denmark. We hope to be able to present the results in a forthcoming volume of Court Studies.

The purpose of this postdoctoral research project was to expand our knowledge about Danish-British portraiture from around 1600 until the 20th century, which previously has received precious little attention from researchers both in Denmark and Britain. A main concern was to find out which artists worked in Britain as well as in Denmark and whom they created portraits of. But it was equally important to see to what degree these artists were influenced by new trends that had evolved in their host countries in terms of style and composition, and how the artist’s work was received. This research was undertaken in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery in London, with whom the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg has had a long-standing collaboration.

"The relationship between Britain and Denmark before the 20th century remains a surprisingly understudied subject, and this is also the case when it comes to the subject of Anglo-Danish portraiture" says Stefan Pajung

Royal Connections in Portraiture

Quite early on in my research it became clear, that while British art in general is not very well represented in the Danish art collections, this is less pronounced within the field of portraiture. From the late 16th century onwards an exchange of both portraits and artists took place between Denmark and Britain due to the close family ties between the Oldenborg and Stuart dynasties that followed upon the marriage of Anna of Denmark to James VI of Scotland.

By comparing and analysing the portraits of Prince George, who in 1683 married the later Queen Anne of Great Britain, Queen Louise, wife to Frederik V of Denmark and Queen Caroline Mathilda, wife to Christian VII of Denmark, I was able to establish continuities as well as developments within their iconographies.

The portraits of Prince George went from being typical representations imbued with the typical values normally associated with a prince to becoming vehicles capable of conveying important political messages after he settled in Britain.

FIG 1. Portrait of Prince George in “Roman” style, by John Riley, 1687, Gavnø Manor © Gavnø-fonden

Queen Louise was in her youth portrayed in the less formal style then in vogue at court in London; in Denmark, her portraiture exudes style and pomp, Louise herself becoming the embodiment of the absolutist queen, who watches gracefully over her people.

FIG 2. Portrait of Queen Louise of Denmark, by C. G. Pilo, 1747-48, Frederiksborg

Caroline Mathilde on the other hand rejected the pomp and grandeur of the rococo and through portraits mostly conveyed a more relaxed, informal, and naturalistic picture of herself. At times these portraits even flaunted the rules that etiquette enjoined her, being portrayed riding astride or in men’s attire or even uniform.

FIG. 3. Queen Caroline Mathilda riding astride, drawing (1886) after contemporary tapestry, 1771, Frederiksborg

Much of this was perhaps even done in order to strengthen her position as future regent, as her husband receded into madness. However, this came to naught, as she in 1772 was sent into exile after her lover Johan Friedrich Struensee, who de facto had ruled Denmark for almost two years, was deposed and brutally executed.

Itinerant Artists and the Conversation Piece

It is worth noting, that neither during prince George’s quarter century in Great Britain, nor during the short reign of the two British queens in Denmark, did Danish or British artists win a foothold within the respective other country. However, some artists from the Danish monarch’s realm did at least try to make a name for themselves in Britain. Especially in the first half of the 18th century - before artists could benefit from the formal training at the Royal Academy of Art - these had to make a career by themselves, going where ever they could find patronage and employment.

One of these painters was Balthasar Denner. While it has been common knowledge that he worked in Britain from 1721-28, hitherto only very little has surfaced about what he did there and how British art influenced his later work. I have been able to verify many of the claims Denner made himself in his short autobiography about his stay in Britain. He painted many noble men and ladies – among them Lord Stanhope, chief minister of George I - but was also much sought after by members of the landed gentry, merchants and cultural figures such as the composer Georg Friedrich Händel.

FIG. 4. Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel, by Balthasar Denner, 1727, National Portrait Gallery, London

Many of these paintings have long stayed in the possession of the descendants of the original sitters and have only recently begun to turn up in the art market, enabling us to trace Denner’s activities in Britain.

But Denner did not only leave a legacy of naturalistic portraits behind, when he departed for the continent in 1728. With him, he brought knowledge of the “conversation piece”, introducing the newly created British style of informal group portraits, of people engaged either in conversation or in common activities to a new audience in Denmark and Northern Germany.

The introduction of the conversation piece heralded a more natural way to depict people and this development had an enormous impact on Danish portrait artists such as Jens Juel” says Stefan Pajung

Thereby he laid the groundwork upon which the great Danish portrait painters of the later part of the 18th century such as Jens Juel could build upon.   

New Beginnings

Relations between the Danish and British courts had cooled as a direct result of the Struensee affair and reached a new low, when Denmark went to war with Britain in 1807, resulting in Danish bankruptcy and the loss of Norway. Relations between the two nations improved gradually in the 1820’s and from the 1830’s onward a number of Danish portrait artists tried to make a name for themselves in Britain, with the well-known artist C.A. Jensen as the front runner.

FIG. 5. Portrait of Sir John Herschel by C. A. Jensen, 1844, Royal Society, London

While he was an accomplished artist, his success in Britain was however hampered by his inability to speak English, thus limiting his ability to get into contact with customers and future patrons, cutting his career in Britain short after a few years. But other Danish artists followed in his footsteps, most notably Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann and Laurits Tuxen, whose success at Queen Victoria’s court was as much due to his good manners and his ability to converse with his royal customers in French, German and English as to his artistic abilities. While a new lull of interest in Danish portraiture set in in Britain from the 1880’s, this was to be revived after the turn of the century, this time at British initiative.

Creating a buzz - The Danish Art Exhibitions of 1907 and 1912 in London and Brighton

These exhibitions truly put Danish art in the spotlight in Britain at the time but are hitherto relatively unknown in Denmark. The Director of the London Guildhall Art Gallery, A. G. Temple, had since 1890 organised art exhibitions dedicated to different European countries. These were well received but stuck to exhibiting art from the established art centers of Europe, i.e. the Netherlands, Flanders, Italy and France. For 1907 however, he planned something new, an exhibition of Danish art. When it opened in April 1907, it created quite a buzz within the British art scene, as it revealed to the British public art hitherto completely unknown.

FIG. 6. The Art Critics by Michael Ancher, 1906, Frederiksborg; exhibited at The Brighton Art Gallery, 1912

The British public and well as the art critics were divided between those that hailed the exhibition as refreshing and groundbreaking, while others had more of a hard time to digest the content. Most importantly however, was, that this exhibition brought the work of Hammershøi and Krøyer to the attention of the general British public.

"When the Danish art exhibition opened at the London Guild Hall in the spring of 1907, the audience did not quite know what to do or how to react – the consensus seemed to be, that the paintings seemed familiar, yet different from everything they had seen before” says Stefan Pajung

While parts of the audience in 1907 thus were skeptical of Danish art, the exhibition of modern Danish art in Brighton in 1912 was almost a complete success. Danish art in Britain was thus on the verge of a big breakthrough, when the First World War intervened, cutting short all plans of artistic cooperation and joint Anglo-Danish exhibitions, a situation that for all rights and purposes lasted until after 1945.

While the exhibitions in London and Brighton are almost forgotten both in Britain and Denmark today, they were the subject of intense debates in their own time. The exhibition in 1907 marked the first time Danish art was exhibited without a Danish board of experts having the last say in what was to be shown.

This postdoctoral research project has expanded our knowledge of Danish-British portraiture from the renaissance until (almost) today enormously, both with regards to what artists were active in both countries, who they painted and how their work was received, but also to what degree the artistic development in both countries influenced those artists. In addition to expanding our knowledge, it disproved a number of previous held assumptions with regards to Danish-British artistic relations.

The grant from the Carlsberg Foundation gave me the opportunity to hone my skills as a researcher and writer and will possibly lead to my future employment within the museal world.


Pajung, Stefan: Dansk-Britisk portrætkunst. In Carlsbergfondets Årsskrift 2017, pp. 134-145.

Pajung, Stefan: Balthasar Denner, hans virke i England 1721-28 og udbredelsen af det engelske ”conversation piece” i Danmark. In Dansk-britisk portrætkunst ca. 1600-1950. Studier fra Det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg (forthcoming)

Pajung, Stefan: Dansk portrætkunst i Storbritannien fra ca. 1830 til 1914. In Dansk-britisk portrætkunst ca. 1600-1950. Studier fra Det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg (forthcoming)

The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle plans to publish Dansk-britisk portrætkunst ca. 1600-1950 in an English translation as well.