Terry Grimley takes a rare opportunity to study some historic portraits from Chequers.
Though the name of the prime minister's weekend retreat is familiar from regular mentions in the news, most of us are probably quite vague as to what exactly Chequers is - or indeed where it is.
In fact, it's a 16th century country house in the Chilterns between Aylesbury and Princes Risborough which was donated for its present purpose in 1917 by Lord Lee of Fareham, a former Conservative MP, in what seems a remarkable act of altruism.
Recognising that the days were over when prime ministers came exclusively from the landed gentry, he offered his house to be maintained by a charitable trust as an oasis of calm for rest and reflection, and for the entertainment of important state guests away from London. And he gave his art collection along with the house.
Although individual items from the collection have been lent to various exhibitions from time to time, the exhibition Paintings From Chequers, which has just opened at Compton Verney, represents the first time that a significant group from the collection has been exhibited elsewhere.
Eleven portraits and a locket ring of Queen Elizabeth I are on display in the gallery which normally houses Compton Verney's permanent collection of British portraits. Rodney Melville, secretary of the Chequers Trust and the conservation architect who oversaw Compton Verney's restoration, points out that the loan has only been made possible because Chequers has been able to take Compton Verney's paintings in exchange.
The portraits show various royal figures, beginning with Lady Margaret Beaufort (1441-1509), the mother of Henry VII and founder of Christ's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge. Margaret was married three times, the first time at the age of seven, before taking a vow of celibacy, and it is clearly this phase of her live which is reflected in her severe pose, prayer book in hand.
Probably the most important paintings are the two Van Dycks of Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria. Though at first glance the portraits seem an obvious pair they may not have been painted as such - Henrietta Maria sat for Van Dyck no fewer than 25 times between 1632 and 1640.
Nor was the importance of these paintings recognised until an opinion was handed down by the leading Van Dyck authority Sir Oliver Miller, who died last year. There used to be doubts about their authenticity, and in fact they are still labelled "after Van Dyck" on the frames, but Miller believed the portrait of Charles was done from life and others were based on it.
The question of originality, in an age when the copying of images of the famous was a laborious but necessary craft, is a thread which runs through the display.
Ominously positioned between Charles and his wife, displayed under a curtain to protect it from light, is Samuel Cooper's watercolouron-vellum portrait of Oliver Cromwell, which was bought by Compton Verney last year. This is believed to be the one which brought the familiar expression "warts and all" into the language, derived from Cromwell's famous request that the artist should not flatter him.
Other Cromwell portraits, including those by Lely of which the first is in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, are now thought to have been based on Cooper's. But directly opposite Charles is a grander portrait of Cromwell from Chequers, attributed to Robert Walker, in which he looks remarkably regal for a regicide.
The other Cromwell-related painting is a possibly posthumous portrait by Jacob Huysmans of Elizabeth Claypole, Cromwell's favourite daughter Betty, whose death at the age of 29 hit him so hard that he could not even bring himself to attend her funeral. The trappings of a globe and dividers, indicating learning, and the inscription Alitora Sequor ("I pursue higher things.") are unusual for a female portrait of the period, but you do wonder whether Cromwell, rejecting flattery for himself, might not have accepted a little more on behalf of his daughter.
Returning to Cooper's watercolour, another by the same artist, an often-reproduced portrait of the Parliamentarian John Pym, is on loan from Chequers and displayed alongside Cromwell.
Following through the chronology, there is a large painting of the five children of Charles I, after Van Dyck and attributed to Henry Stone, featuring two future monarchs in Charles II and James II. Even as a boy you can see the beginnings of Charles's prominent jowls.
Other portraits show a young James I in 1575, by an unknown artist, and Bloody Mary in an anonymous copy of a portrait by Antonis Mor, commissioned by Philip II of Spain shortly after their marriage, which is now in the Prado in Madrid.
And then there is Elizabeth I's fascinating locket ring, containing miniature cameo portraits of herself and her mother Ann Boleyn. The story is that at her death this was removed from her finger and taken to Scotland to be shown to her successor, James VI of Scotland. Unfortunately there are other rings about which the same story is told.
A portrait by Hans Eworth of Lady Mary Grey has a direct link to the history of Chequers.
The sister of the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey, the teenage queen who was executed after reigning for nine days, Mary upset Elizabeth I by marrying without her permission, and was imprisoned for two years in what is still known as The Prison Room. The inscriptions she made on the walls are still visible but their content is indecipherable.
Finally, moving forward 350 years, there is a painting by the Hungarian society portraitist Philip de Laszlo of Lord and Lady Lee at Chequers, painted to mark their departure from the house in January 1921.
* Portraits from Chequers: Kings, Queens and Revolutionaries is on display until December 14 at Compton Verney, near Kineton, Warwickshire 01926 645500 (Tue-Sun 11am-5pm, closed Mon except Bank Holidays; admission £7 Adults, £5 concessions, £2 child age 5-16, £16 Family). Related events include a Civil War weekend with the Sealed Knot, June 13-15. The next exhibition in the temporary galleries is The Fabric of Myth (June 21-September 7).