Michael Clarke looks at the Tate's Tudor and Jacobean portrait exhibition On December 1, a candlelit performance in Southwark Cathedral will mark the culmination of six weeks of work by 300 pupils from Southwark and Lambeth secondary schools. Only the first phase of a three-year programme involving the Tate gallery, the Royal National Theatre and the orchestra of St John's Smith Square, the project is centred on the Tate exhibition Dynasties: Tudor and Jacobean Portraiture 1530-1630 and the National Theatre's production of Ben Jonson's Volpone.
Working with a theatre director, an actress, a composer and, on this occasion, design students from Wimbledon School of Art, the pupils will realise in costume, music and performance their own interpretation of metropolitan life.
When Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome in 1534, he initiated a century of courtly patronage in which portraiture was not only the dominant pictorial art form but a fundamental part of royal propaganda.
In Hans Holbein the Younger's now lost but much imitated Whitehall mural (made visible at the Tate in the most complete copy by van Leemput), Henry stands powerfully four-square opposite his wife, Jane Seymour, and before his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Much more a representation of majesty than a particular man, it is the obvious precursor of many deliberately constructed images of Elizabeth 1, like the decidedly iconic Ditchley portrait by Marcus Gheerraerts in which various visual and verbal devices lay claim to the supposed Virgin Queen as ruler of the entire universe.
What connects these and most of the other portraits with the allegorical pictures and sets and costumes by Inigo Jones for court masques included in the exhibition is the insistence on the public role: social status takes precedence over individual personality. Glimpses of a more intimate life are evident in some portrait drawings and miniatures, especially the self-portraits of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, but they are always highly decorous. When he was writing court masques, Jonson himself was engaged in royal myth-making and in the process of unravelling the elaborately coded images of court art, pupils will readily strike parallels with the tactics employed by pop-stars and political leaders today.
Teachers and tutors will find the notes provided by the Tate's education department indispensable. There is also a workshop day for primary teachers, The Play's The Thing, which explores painting and theatre in society, and another for secondary and FE teachers, Revels and Rebels, in association with the Globe Theatre, examining themes such as court and popular culture. Separate workshops suited to all stages of the national curriculum in costume and identity, communications, making and meaning, are available throughout the autumn.
Dynasties: Tudor and Jacobean portraiture 1530-1630. Tate Gallery, London, until January 7. Education Department: 0171 887 87568764. Globe Theatre education 0171 620 0202.