The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London — evaluation

Simon Schama curates an exhibition that explores British portraiture through themes

Self-portrait by Gwen John Simon Weston by Nicky Philipps

Self-portrait by Gwen John Simon Weston by Nicky Philipps

“The faces which look out at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the which means of an epoch.” So stated the art historian Kenneth Clark, and I think Simon Schama would almost certainly agree with him. A new exhibition curated by Schama, The Face of Britain: The Nation Via its Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, shows above all that portraits, be they painted, drawn, printed or clicked, are about some thing much more than a simple likeness they are a reflection of the time and situations of their creation. And, in fretting about the ephemerality of today’s selfie-snapping, I suspect that Schama is attempting to put his finger on the meaning of our personal age.

Schama’s central thesis on portraiture, which he also develops in a book and forthcoming BBC2 series, is that it emerges from a “triangular collision of wills amongst sitter, artist and public”. For the most part this is accurate, although art historians and curators have a tendency these days to see “tension” everywhere. A literal example of such a collision is Graham Sutherland’s doomed 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill, the story of which is engagingly told in the exhibition with preparatory studies and archive footage.

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The portrait was commissioned by the Homes of Parliament. Sutherland, a gifted, perceptive but rather stubborn artist, chose not to stick to the suggestions (if he knew it) of the wonderful 18th-century portraitist Joshua Reynolds: if a painter “cannot make his hero speak like a great man he must make him appear like one”. Rather, Sutherland saw before him an old, occasionally shambling man prone to dozing off. So that is what he painted.

Sutherland’s portrait was also truthful for its time. Churchill hated it. To everyone’s discomfort, the presentation ceremony went ahead, broadcast on television from Westminster, where Churchill mocked the picture by calling it a “remarkable example of modern art”. In these days, to contact art “modern” was one thing of an insult. Some years later, Clementine Churchill’s private secretary burnt the painting, to her employer’s delight. (Or so the story goes Harold Wilson utilised to claim it was not destroyed, and, touching the tip of his nose, would add: “I know exactly where it is.”)

Churchill had wanted a lot more manage over his image, like most holders of power. Elizabeth I directed Nicholas Hilliard to show her face with “no shadow at all” — that is, no wrinkles. And the exhibition showcases two instances of Margaret Thatcher’s portrait meddling she insisted on smiling for Helmut Newton’s camera in 1991, in case not doing so produced her appear “disagreeable”, even though for Rodrigo Moynihan’s oil portrait of 1983/85 Thatcher not only changed the colour scheme, but even the depiction of her eyes. Her interference is blamed by the National Portrait Gallery for “a compromised painting that speaks of artistic flare extinguished”, even though in truth it is tough to see much artistic flare in Moynihan’s work usually.

The exhibition reveals a lot of such entertaining tales, and there are gems worth seeing. The self-portraits by Gwen John and Lucian Freud are among the ideal you will see, and they prove — perhaps inconveniently — that portraitists excel when totally free to ignore the demands of paying sitters. Nicky Philipps’ portrait of the Falklands veteran Simon Weston, for example, is that uncommon thing: a good modern portrait in oil. And the wit of James Gillray’s satirical caricatures still resonates today.

There are limitations, nonetheless, and they are mainly self-imposed. Like the series and the book, the display explores the history of British portraiture not chronologically but by way of themes “power”, “love”, “fame”, “self” and
“people” (as in “ordinary people”, not posh ones). In the book (and doubtless the series) the thematic approach works when it is held together by Schama’s wide selection of portraits, his enthusiasm, and some of the best writing on British portraiture I have read. But take Schama away, replace his energetic presence with wall text and labels, and the themes at times fail to provide.

What ought to have been a defining moment in the gallery’s mission to showcase British history by means of portraiture is alternatively an inconsistent, somewhat forced display. That it is spread about the developing in separate rooms (or in curatorial-speak, “interventions”) does not help. And nor do the themes look always to make sense. The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare is often a pleasure to see, specifically when rival Shakespeare portraits are “discovered” almost weekly. But it fits oddly right here in “fame” (and by the staircase), for Shakespeare was not a celebrity in his lifetime in the way we would recognise today. Certainly, the Chandos portrait is so in contrast to history’s vision of fame that 19th-century viewers felt the require to tinker with it, giving Shakespeare longer hair to make him look much less like an accountant and much more like a playwright.

The gallery says the exhibition “has been created in wider discussion with National Portrait Gallery curators”, and at occasions the display does really feel like the operate of a committee. Nowhere is this much more apparent than in the “Introductory” section, where the 5 themes are introduced as follows: Margaret Thatcher for “power” the abolitionist William Wilberforce for “fame” George Leigh Mallory (by Duncan Grant) for “love” the 19th-century black actor Ira Aldridge for “people” and a self-portrait by the Scottish painter Anna Zinkeisen for “self”. These are all fine portraits, but such box-ticking shows how subjective a thematic interpretation of British portraiture must be.

This is not, as a result, the face of Britain as it truly existed. Right here you will discover no imperialists, no rich merchants, and surely no slave traders. As an alternative, it is the face of Britain we want had existed inclusive, romantic, and (mostly) agreeable. From within this thicket of political correctness, we struggle to draw any broader conclusions about the history of the British face, or the artists who developed it. But perhaps that is not the point. For these curated faces inform us a lot more about present ideals than past realities.

npg.org.uk

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Section: Arts