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Simon Schama’s Face of Britain

17 September 2015

SchamaSuch is the hype that has surrounded this project (book, exhibition and TV series) that disappointment was inevitable. When art and history collide, it is rare that both survive unscathed. And in this case it won’t surprise you that history comes out on top. The portraits chosen are dominated by the interesting and remarkable (i.e. discussable) rather than the beautiful or artistically significant. It is a succession of anecdotes rather than a monograph about British portraiture.

As I’ve only skimmed the book (which I got yesterday), haven’t been to the exhibition, and the TV series hasn’t started, it’s inappropriate to think of offering a fair or balanced review. But as I’m about to steep myself, for some time, in Vigée Le Brun, I offer some initial thoughts and reactions to the book. Incidentally, will someone please tell publishers how much all book lovers hate printed boards, with or without gimmicky wrappers? And as for digital printing on uncoated paper…it’s enough to drive you to e-books.

Although Schama covers media ranging from oil and sculpture to photography, prints, caricatures, miniature, silhouettes and even cigarette cards, there is in fact little discussion of the media as such, but an endless stream of stories. Even from the start we see that the selection has nothing to do with the quality of the portrait: the historian will be fascinated by Sutherland’s Churchill, which really wasn’t a great portrait, while his Somerset Maugham, albeit acknowledged as more successful, isn’t reproduced. I’m sure the general reader will enjoy many of these stories, and everyone will find something they don’t know – often among stories they thought they did. Again that is Schama’s technique: uncovering the unfamiliar, and going a little further into the familiar. Thus we have Sir Kenelm Digby’s portrait of his dead wife, Jefferson’s affair with Maria Cosway; Lewis Carroll and Alice; Rossetti and Jane Morris; Romney and Emma Hamilton – although these are told in far more detail than most people will recall, so much so that there is a danger of losing the plot.

If there is one. Because unlike previous books in this area – David Piper’s The English Face will spring to mind – there is no overall sense of structure, certainly no thesis. This is not a book about portraiture, but a collection of pen-portraits, as disparate as the NPG’s own collections.

Readers familiar with Schama’s work will recognise the chatty style: it’s his trick for grabbing your attention and involving you in his stories. And while it’s effective in its way, it leaves a tone which hovers insecurely between a blog and a TV programme script (for which it presumably doubles: we shall see), while sometimes sitting uncomfortably on the printed page.

Who is the book aimed at? I’m not sure whether, on its own (and its length precludes its being used with other works), it would give sufficient structure (such as a basic chronology) to be safely given to schoolchildren. The absence of proper notes confirms that its intentions are for the general market. But the lack of direction afforded by such mundane things as dates can trip even the author: thus, on p. 307, Schama tells us about the “long-running catfight” between Kitty Fisher and “Mary” Gunning, Countess of Coventry, adding that

the countess, alas, would (and probably did) have the last laugh. Barely four months after marrying Norris, Kitty died…she had killed herself, it was said, by years of applying a lead-based cosmetic to her face to preserve its perfectly milky complexion.

It is the absence of sitters’ dates that allows this confusion to go unnoticed: Maria died in precisely this gruesome way – but seven years before her rival (whose cause of death is disputed). Perhaps indeed she does get the last laugh.

Schama probes further (and interestingly) with Gwen John and Laura Knight, but here is a passage which you will understand caught my attention:

…commentators on Laura Knight’s masterpiece were at a loss to know what to make of it, so they resorted, as the feeblest art critics will, to smarmy condescension. Women really ought to stick to the delicate things they were naturally suited to: pastels, watercolours, still lifes, that sort of thing don’t you know.

But while rescuing Laura Knight (actually this has been done before, recently), Schama doesn’t seem to wish to rescue pastels, which remain beneath the reach of his condescension. Gainsborough, we are told, “was also determined that [his daughters] not be restricted to the kind of crafty arts thought fitting for women: pastels and decorative drawing.” And when we finally get to a pastellist, Henry Tonks (also the subject of much recent attention, even in this blog), we get “But he would still work in pastel, traditionally thought to be suited to decorative subjects.” Apart from the briefest reference to “instant likenesses in pastel” by the “six-year-old Tommy” (Lawrence, whose earliest essay in crayons was probably a little later), there is nothing about the artists who represented an important part of the portraiture of Britain in the eighteenth century: domestically Francis Cotes or John Russell, let alone the highly influential pastels made of English sitters by Rosalba Carriera (executed in Venice, but displayed back in England) or Liotard (whose portrait of Garrick would have fitted nicely into the chapter on the actor). William Hoare is mentioned, although (inevitably) only because of his oil of the black Ayuba Suleiman Diallo: we are told this was made in a drawing-room in Bath (since the portrait is the only evidence that Hoare was in England at the time, such precision seems speculative), although we are not told that Diallo’s stay in England was in fact only for 15 months: he records not the face but the shame of Britain.

Even the title suffers from all the schizophrenia of the NPG collection (see my post). Is the Face of Britain merely the Faces of Britains? Suppose you have an Englishman, a Frenchman and a German. Each is painted by an artist. Now reverse it: have a sitter painted by an English, a French and a German artist. There is far more to understand and analyse from the point of view of portraiture in the different national painting techniques than in the national anatomies. The history of British portraiture is dominated by foreigners: Holbein, Van Dyck etc. What is lacking in this book is a systematic attempt to understand why a French portrait of say the eighteenth century is so different from an English or a German one from the same period. Yet this is a topic of real interest and richness: concepts of varying levels of finish, different approaches to the training of professional artists and so on are being actively researched. These concepts take centre stage in analysing the peregrinations of itinerant artists and their different receptions in capitals across Europe (among professional communities of artists, critics and connoisseurs as well as by the clientèle and the general public). Liotard and Perronneau in London: compare and contrast, etc.

Well, you will say, that’s a different book. Indeed.

Postscript – 21 September

I did pop into the exhibition yesterday morning. There’s no need to adjust any of my comments above, or to go into great detail on how this exhibition disappoints: you’d need Brian Sewell’s vocabulary and courage to do so. In fairness there are some very good self-portraits in Room 38 (on the ground floor, so well worth a visit if you’r in the gallery). But the dispersal of the exhibition to odd corners throughout the gallery is mad, and the quality of many of the pictures lamentable. Yes, the cigarette cards are there. And if anyone thought that putting Mrs Thatcher beside two Queens Elizabeth was some kind of coup, the damp squib was not of the kind intended. There are too many reviews to link to all, but Bendor Grosvenor’s (much more tactful) piece in the Financial Times can be found, with links to others, on his site.

From → Art history

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