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'The Face Of Britain' Tells A Nation's History Through Portraits

Simon Schama calls portraiture "the least free of painterly genres." He writes: "No rose will complain of excessive petal-droop in a still life; no cheese will take you to task over inaccurate veining. ... But portraiture is answerable as no other specialty to something lying beyond the artist's creativity. That something is the sitter paying the bill."

Schama, a professor of both history and art history, has a new book out called The Face of Britain. It's about the faces immortalized in London's National Portrait Gallery, and the stories behind the paintings — some of which he shared with NPR's Robert Siegel.

Interview Highlights

On the portrait that helped make 18th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick famous

Garrick was extraordinary because he was an overnight star, and the word "star" was actually used for the very first time. ... Garrick himself had the sense in which if he was going to make it as a young man he needed people to know who he was as a personality. So he went into partnership with a brilliant artist who had a very strong sense of theater, William Hogarth, and before long there was an enormous painting of Garrick at an extraordinary moment: the moment of Richard III's comeuppance, when he has a bad night and he's visited by the ghosts of his many victims. ... This as an extraordinary huge painting, much bigger than anything else Hogarth did. Hogarth always knew that it was going to become a print. And once you put that star moment into a print, it could circulate all around the country. And Garrick became overnight a sensation and it was due entirely to the manufacture of his portrait image.

This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (painted circa 1600 by an unknown artist) mimics <a href="http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/royals/richard-ii-and-anne-of-bohemia">an earlier portrait of King Richard II</a>. Schama says the queen "knew what power lay with the royal stare. But she also knew that image was not everything."
Reprinted from "The Face of Britain" by Simon Schama with permission from Oxford University Press / National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery, London
This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (painted circa 1600 by an unknown artist) mimics an earlier portrait of King Richard II. Schama says the queen "knew what power lay with the royal stare. But she also knew that image was not everything."

On artist Graham Sutherland's 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill

It's [Churchill's] 80 th birthday. It's going to be the moment when the nation and [Parliament] is going to thank him for saving the country during the war. And the parliament indeed picks this fashionable and rather brilliant portraitist and then they have a kind of testy relationship. It's a testy relationship because Churchill, you'll remember, is himself a painter, so Churchill thinks of it as a partnership. But he has certain political issues that are desperately important to him. Unbeknownst to the country, he'd had a stroke a few months before. And because he had a stroke, his own party, the conservatives, were very keen to get him out of the door in time for the next election. Churchill accepted, but he kept on thinking of reasons why he didn't want to go.

So when portrait time happened, he wanted a version of himself where he was still in the full prime of his veteran power — an old man, but a perpetually energetic man. And what he got from Sutherland, as became quickly apparent, was a portrait of a magnificent ruin, as I say. And [Churchill] said, "I don't want this presented to me," but the ceremony had to go ahead and it was a shocking moment: Churchill very straightaway got his revenge by facing this huge audience, a television audience as well as the audience in Westminster Hall, and saying, "This is a very remarkable example" — heavy pause — "of modern art." And everybody fell about laughing except for the poor artist who felt destroyed by the moment. ...

Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. But this wasn't good enough because when the portrait was given to the family, it was not long before they put it on a bonfire and burnt it. ... We have a slide, which for me shows that if it had it survived it would have been one of the grandest and most expressive and moving portraits ever done of a statesman, I think.

On the essential truth he discovered about the portrait

I think it has an extraordinary power beyond its beginnings in vanity or self-congratulation. All portraits are really — or most of them — are triangular relationships. Because quite apart from a person saying, "Now do me at my finest," and the artist saying, "We'll see about that, sunshine," there is the public — people other than you who will be looking at it. So, very unusually for a work of art is an active collaboration. And things can go swimmingly — that collaboration can produce a kind of enriched image of truly hypnotic power — or things can go terribly wrong.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff