The National Portrait Gallery opened its doors in 1859 during a frenzy of national self-regard. A few years earlier, millions had flocked to the Great Exhibition to marvel at the wonders of the industrial age. Determined not to be outshone by the capital, Manchester staged the mammoth Treasures of Britain exhibition. With 16,000 artworks it was the largest art show in the world. Visitors included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Disraeli, Gladstone, Dickens, Florence Nightingale and many of the ruling sovereigns of Europe.
Yet the mood in the country was uncertain. British troops were mired in conflict in Crimea. There was news of riot and mutiny in India during the Sepoy Rebellion. During the Great Stink of 1858, London's air turned noxious with the scent of sewage and slaughterhouse refuse. In Dickens' Bleak House, fog roils through the capital, symbol of the venality and social inequality corrupting Victorian society.
What aspects of Britain should a National Portrait Gallery, the first such gallery in the world, celebrate in an era so triumphal and so anxious?
The initial impulse was to the didactic. With portraits restricted to the eminent dead, the aim was to instruct the British people in who they were, in what glorious stock they came from. That the institution became anything more than a stultifying hall for heroes was down to a few early works that illustrated the possibilities for portraiture as something other than hagiography.
Thomas Lawrence's delicate and sympathetic sketch of William Wilberforce was among the first collection of works shown at the gallery, the great abolitionist is captured with his head cocked to the side, a smile playing across his lips, his eyes dark and searching. The painting celebrates a career of virtue and moral leadership. But it also speaks of private pain. Wilberforce had a curvature of the spine so severe he was forced to wear an iron brace to prevent his body collapsing in on itself. With a tilt to his head, a far-off gleam in his eyes, Lawrence acknowledges Wilberforce's debilitating condition without sentimentalising him as victim or martyr. And neither does he render him as the great and noble figure as some of the campaigner's admirers might have wished. He succeeds in what surely is the defining goal of public portraiture; he paints the man rather than the reputation.
As much now as then, the question of what Britain looks like, of who best represents the nation and how to best represent them, remains a vexed one. Simon Schama's The Face of Britain aims to tell the story of the nation "through its portraits". The book is written in conjunction with a show at the National Portrait Gallery, curated by Schama, with an accompanying TV series that he will present, all on that same theme. Even without such high stakes this would be a task fraught with risk. The act of pinning down Britishness is elusive enough, rife as it is with bromides about fair play and tolerance, love of tea and royal family. But delineating national identity through portraiture is all the more tricky because of the unique challenges presented by the genre itself. Unlike other styles of painting, such as landscape or still life, the portrait is the one form where the subject can speak back to the artist – and is most likely to be paying the bill as well. When self-image collides with external gaze the results can be combustible. Churchill hated his portrait by Graham Sutherland so profoundly that he mocked it openly at its unveiling at Westminster Hall and later had it burned.
There is a story behind every portrait and it is often a three-way drama between the sitter's expectations, the artist's ambitions and the public's judgement on their encounter.
Schama, wisely, isn't interested in coming to conclusions about the relative Britishness of the paintings he examines. Instead, he assembles a cast from across history "who 'stood for' Britain yet were not waxwork ciphers of a nation, rather, a gathering of individuals still alive enough in their painted incarnations for us to feel at home in their company".
And what a gathering it is. There are monarchs and military heroes here – Victoria, Elizabeth I, Nelson, Drake. But for the most part Schama roams freely across British society, ignoring status in favour of the levelling stuff of human emotion; the scenes of hope and vulnerability, pride and dark desire that ring universally true: here is a row of Suffragettes scowling for their police mugshots, all glorious rage; Lady Emma Hamilton, "celebrated for nothing much except being herself and the most beautiful woman in England"; John Lennon, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, curled foetus like beside Yoko Ono in a pose of unabashed need and devotion, just five hours before he is shot dead outside the Dakota.
In a pub in Soho, Francis Bacon meets George Dyer. He likes what he sees. They move in together. And even before their relationship spirals to its doomed conclusion, Schama prefigures its contortions with his description of Bacon at the easel, "the brush swooping and looping; turning and pasting. Occasionally he'd throw gobs of white paint at the image, a whiplash hurl like ejaculate. It was like a good fight or a fuck, a spilling of the guts." All of these lives rendered with an acuity of detail that could rival the best of portraitists.
Finally, here's Schama himself, flickering intermittently into focus through the book, a boy riding on the shoulders of his granddad, a father gazing down at his newborn daughter, the baby "howling on cue, wiped clean of vernix".
Describing Lawrence's portrait of Wilberforce, Schama call the painting a work of "transforming empathy". That phrase could be true of his storytelling throughout this book.
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