Venetia Digby hadn’t been feeling unwell. She had gone to bed behind velvet curtains, as on every other night, wearing a cap to keep her curls in place. It was May Day, 1633, and the girls of Clerkenwell were gathering to dance their ribbons around the maypole. Sir Kenelm Digby was listening to Thomas Hawkins discuss his translation of Horace’s Odes: “Whilst we are talking, envious time doth slide: This day’s thine own; the next may be denied.” Then there was the cry of the maid; the rush to the bedchamber; his wife, her hand to her face, as though just asleep. But it was an illusion, Digby wrote to his brother: “She had been dead for hours before.” His sorrow was overwhelming, excessive, unchristian. “I will not,” he said, “hold my grief for the world’s sake.”
Rumor spread that Venetia had been poisoned by her beauty tonic, viper wine, which kept her complexion “just that of the damask rose,” according to John Aubrey. The king ordered an autopsy for the third day; on the first Digby cut off her hair (“the softest that ever I sawe”), on the second he called for Anthony van Dyck to cast her hands and face and to paint her as she lay, not in the heavy sleep of death but living still. They rubbed her cheeks to bring back the “not yet settled” color and Van Dyck depicted her lying between the blue curtains, flushed and pink-lipped. Among all the depictions of sleeping Venuses, spied on by satyrs, gods, shepherds (and of course the viewer), Venetia’s portrait is of an everyday, married love, but one that was now tantalizingly beyond reach for Digby. Her face, on the verge of waking, is suspended there forever; the rose in her lap has cast all of its petals across the bedclothes.
This is one the stories Simon Schama tells in The Face of Britain, and he tells it with dash and far more detail. His BBC television show of the same name, broadcast in 2015, looked at a range of British portraits (the “British” isn’t as straightforward as it sounds), grouped loosely around themes of love, power, fame, and self-reflection, and The Face of Britain expands on the show.
The story of Venetia and Kenelm is one of love—their courtship had been long, dramatic, and scandalous—but it’s also one of fame, or infamy. Venetia’s reputation wasn’t secured by her death, and Digby responded to whispers of her impropriety by employing Van Dyck to paint her again. Instead of the private memorial, what Digby wanted now was a public statement. The second painting, large and allegorical, depicts Venetia as Prudence, her foot keeping down an unhappy Cupid while two-faced Deceit skulks in the shadows.
Van Dyck’s portrait of Digby from around the same time has a more intriguing symbolism: it shows him beside a great sunflower, his hand on his heart. In other works (such as Van Dyck’s own self-portrait) the sunflower represents the king’s favor, but here it stands for Venetia’s love, the memory of which follows Kenelm and lights his way. It alludes to Ovid’s story of Clytie, who turned into a great sunflower because of the loss of Apollo’s love, and, of course, to Christian piety, which, in the tradition of Dante and Petrarch, can find its precedent in unattainable human love. The inscription, “omnis in hoc sum,” comes from Horace’s first epistle: “What is right and seemly in my study and pursuit, and to that I am wholly given”; Digby gave himself over to his work and never married again.
The meanings in these pictures are layered and various; each works differently. Schama uses the story of Digby’s mourning to connect some of the many images of the two that were made after Venetia’s death. The version of their romance and Digby’s widowhood he gives is one of human feeling in which portraits represent important moments and sentiments. It is natural then that Venetia’s deathbed portrait, an unusual painting even at the time, should be his focus, rather than the later, more ambiguous portraits of her husband, though in many respects they are the more interesting.
Digby was one of the most elusive men of his era: a courtier, diplomat, pirate, and natural philosopher, a Catholic who served the king but later worked for Cromwell, and who studied astrology and alchemy. His close friendship with Van Dyck makes the portraits painted of him over the decades especially intriguing: his expression can be read as sorrowful, guarded, subtle, or intimate; they describe a personal and public man (in another version of the sunflower portrait, a broken armillary sphere symbolizes both his learning and his loss). In studying them, we are trying to read a man who wants to reveal and conceal; the portrait of Venetia is much more straightforward.
Schama’s conception of portraiture as a means of preserving the loved one is flexible enough to allow him to range across hundreds of years of art; the instinct that he sees in Pliny’s story of the first portrait (the hastily sketched outline of a departing lover) he can find in Francis Bacon’s posthumous painting in 1972 of George Dyer. And the personal impulse is echoed (it’s implied) in the public.
Some of the works he considers have acquired their poignancy posthumously: Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Yoko Ono with a naked, fetal John Lennon becomes fateful, immortalizing, when he dies only hours later. (How vulnerable he looks!) Portraits of Charles I—many of them by Van Dyck—were thought by subsequent generations to have a sad, haunted look to them—a prophetic melancholy Charles certainly wouldn’t have thought he was expressing. Each age thinks it reads a portrait fully, correctly, and finally.
In this way of reading them, portraits are portals, encapsulating stories of their protagonists and betraying the dynamic between sitters, artists, and commissioners. Schama’s zeal is for unlocking these stories: what he tells us about the background or moment of their creation, their style, significance, internal arrangements, is what we need to decipher the personal. Most of all he’s interested in why we make portraits. The stories that he includes under the heading “The Face of Love” reveal a number of ways of thinking about what it might mean to fix a person’s likeness for another’s benefit. Adoration slides easily into possessiveness, observation into preservation, expressed as arresting time—Charles Dodgson wanting to keep Alice Liddell a little girl forever—defying distance, or having what cannot be had (Schama reads Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s relentless painting of Jane Morris this way).
He tries to tease out the psychology behind George Romney’s obsession with Emma Hamilton, or Emma Hart as she was when, as the mistress of the aristocratic antiquarian and politician Charles Greville, she was taken to his studio in 1782 to have her picture made. In a self-portrait from the period Romney appears defensive and brooding, his arms crossed and hands hidden; according to Schama he is a “tempest…under the baleful influence of Saturn” waiting for a “sudden ray of light.” He became obsessed with Emma’s beauty and vivacity, and in contrast to the heavy fashions of the time he painted her in simple white dresses—contrived, of course, but seemingly not:
Emma in a straw hat like a gypsy, a hand provokingly tucked under her chin; Emma as “Nature” itself, vine leaves and ivy in her chestnut tresses; many Emmas as a bacchante, allowing what was not supposed to be allowed—the open lips of a smile or a laugh.
She sat for Romney 118 times within two years; he ignored other sitters, his bank balance, his friends. And his paintings made her a sensation.
Twenty years earlier, another woman of low origins, Kitty Fisher, had made herself a sensation by carefully crafting her public image (she even engineered a dramatic petticoat-raising fall from her horse). Her primary shaper was Joshua Reynolds, portraitist to the demimonde; his studio was the place where the most beautiful women in the country could be seen. He painted Fisher a number of times: leaning forward, just a little too much, in thick bands of pearls that clearly don’t represent her abundant virtue; reaching out a finger to toy with Reynolds’s parrot; as Cleopatra—a vision of alabaster skin—dissolving a pearl in vinegar.
If this decadent double entendre of disintegrating virtue wasn’t enough, Reynolds pressed the point home by highlighting the beautiful articulation of her fingers as she lowers the pearl: her thumb and forefinger make an “o.” It “manages,” Schama writes, “to hit the heights of refinement and the depths of crass innuendo.” Reynolds knew what he was doing: prints of the painting sold by the thousand.
Reynolds may have alienated himself from more conservative circles, but society was bending his way. The distinction (and separation) between the highest and lowest was more flagrantly disregarded in Britain than in any other European country of the time. Aristocrats not only had dalliances with showgirls and courtesans, they publicly fêted them (with the energetic help of the newspapers) and even married them.
The future George IV, serially romantic, set the measure as Prince of Wales in the late 1700s, falling in love with a succession of actresses and singers, married or not. He would send his favorites miniatures of himself—small watercolor portraits painted on slivers of ivory, which could be kept in a pocket or hung on a ribbon (a fashion his mother, Queen Charlotte, had attempted to make respectable by conspicuously wearing her husband’s). The delicate artistry (ivory was particularly tricky to work on, requiring special gums and fine brushes) called for equally delicate flattery of the subject: smoothing the prince’s double chin, turning his hapless expression into that of the bold and ardent lover.
Having someone else’s portrait had long been synonymous with romantic possession, but the proliferation and quick-changing use of portraits confused their significance. Did the gift of a miniature intend something as serious as an engagement, or only a token of affection? Could it be publicly displayed, and if so how and when? As gentility tried to outrun vulgarity, inventiveness could easily come full circle, upsetting received notions of acceptable behavior. A new miniature cast out an old one.
It’s tempting to see Gainsborough’s painting of the actress Mary Robinson as Schama does, reading criticism of the capricious prince (whose miniature she holds) in her bitter expression and the autumnal setting. But it could well be a look of grim satisfaction: the miniature, and the letters she had judiciously kept, were a useful form of blackmail. And Gainsborough had his own critique to add. For all the beauty of scene and the sitter, no one is supposed to be fooled by its artful simplicity; Robinson’s half-closed eyes are more calculating than tearful.
The transactional nature of portraits in the eighteenth century means that they now form a record of that sociable society’s self-aggrandizing and scurrilous behaviors. It’s a rich seam for a writer like Schama, interested in the human agency behind artifacts. Demand created competition and competition new ingenuity. When the usual portraits of the Prince of Wales failed to woo Maria Fitzherbert, a rich widow who had fled the country to escape his overtures, his painter, George Cosway, was forced to new contrivance. A special miniature was produced: not of George’s visage but of his eye alone, gazing out in “unbroken adoration.” It’s a strange and marvelous work, as disquieting as it is attractive; the eye floats in a faceless mist, with a piercing black pupil.
With the increasing strength of Parliament and wealth of the aristocracy came the rise of a new patrician portraiture. At Althorp, Chatsworth, and Woburn lords filled the halls and galleries with paintings of their forebears and of themselves. The family galleries proclaimed bloodlines and breeding. When William III (a king made by Parliament) came to Althorp and sat for dinner in the second Earl of Sutherland’s long gallery, the point must have been clear.
The trend didn’t stop at dynastic portraits in country houses. In the early eighteenth century, metropolitan clubs and societies—most notably the Kit-Cat Club—were forging powerful alliances through a culture of gentility, in which conscious self-fashioning was aligned with Whig political sympathies (social contract theory, inevitability of progress). The forty-eight portraits of Kit-Cat Club members (including John Locke, Joseph Addison, William Congreve, and Robert Walpole) have a studied ease; the artist, Godfrey Kneller, invented a new form—less than half-length but showing the hands—to give the sitters a uniform informality. But the distinctions aren’t entirely erased: the writers are more likely to be shown against a natural backdrop, the lords swathed in red velvet.
Portraits were the most popular genre at the Royal Academy exhibitions, and unlike the Paris Salon, the RA selection board allowed portraits to make up half the exhibited works. The British low culture of portrait images—prints were cheaply made and cheap to buy—went hand in hand with a more lofty aspiration to immortalize the country’s great. At Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham, built a temple of “British Worthies” in 1734–1735, to accompany his temple of “Ancient Virtue.” The niches of the curved exedra (a sort of outdoor display cabinet) featured busts of Milton, Shakespeare, Newton, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I, William III, Inigo Jones, Francis Drake, and Alexander Pope.
The same sunny interpretation of the trajectory of British history eventually led to the creation of a national portrait gallery, although it took another century before it opened in 1859 (private galleries and Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner had fulfilled the role in the meantime). Gladstone, the chancellor of the exchequer on the announcement in 1856, remarked that the British had a greater number of valuable historical portraits than any other nation in Europe. It didn’t matter that portraits were considered inferior to history painting; indeed it may have helped: it was a tradition that could clearly be recognized as British, rather than a Continental derivation.
The first portrait for the new gallery was of Shakespeare, naturally. Lord Ellesmere gave the trustees his “Chandos” portrait, which had once been in the collection at Stowe. When Gladstone wrote to thank him, he affirmed that they were concerned to make “history, and not art, the governing principle for the formation of this gallery.” “History, and not art” is the rule by which the gallery has functioned ever since. The third painting offered to the new trustees, a Romney, was rejected on the grounds that the sitter (Sir Hugh Inglis) wasn’t important enough, despite the undoubted value of the artist. As a collection this is its strength and weakness. The chronological arrangement gives a colorful walk-through of British history, but the paintings themselves are varied. The gallery’s relatively small size means the curators at least have to be picky: artists like Kneller and Reynolds could get through multiple sitters a day (Kneller saw fourteen once), and many portraits of the time were bought off the shelf, with faces daubed in after.
Schama makes good use of the NPG collection, but he avoids many of the canon’s obvious subjects—Byron, Wollstonecraft (writers altogether in fact), The Ambassadors, Mrs and Mrs Andrews, The Skating Minister—in favor of artists and forms that are likely to be less familiar: Henry Tonks’s wonderful images of injured soldiers from World War I, painted to aid surgeons performing facial reconstruction; John Kay’s Edinburgh silhouettes; the fascinating Tudor artist Gerlach Flicke.
Schama’s eclecticism sometimes raises more questions than it answers: Do the fifteenth-century religious panels discovered in a cottage at Piccotts End in 1953 count as portraits? They’re wonderful examples of sacred art in a secular setting, and have much to tell us about the power of such depictions: the paintings were both defaced (all the figures except the sleeping Christ child) and whitewashed over. (Destruction is one of the many intriguing loose threads in the book: a major painting of Churchill was burned by his secretary; Queen Victoria scratched out her own face in a family photograph.)
But if religious paintings count as portraits, then what does that do to the genre? It seems unfair to begrudge Schama opportunities for novelty and diversion (his title allows the works to be faces of Britain, rather than faces of Britons, after all) but his elastic sense of what constitutes a portrait wants nuance. Are paintings like those of Jane Morris really portraits of the sitter, or of the obsessive mind of Rossetti behind them?
Schama traces the desire to influence and intimidate through the portraits grouped under “The Face of Power.” They attest to the difficulty of controlling one’s own image in any period, but it’s also difficult to comprehend the power of the images themselves before photography. At the same time that Thomas More was campaigning against “sacrilegious” artworks, such as those at Piccotts End, Hans Holbein was painting representations of divine kingship. Elizabeth I recognized the psychological need for images to worship among all her subjects—not just Catholics—and contrived a self-iconography that could absorb the cult of the Virgin Mary. To enforce it, a proclamation was issued in 1563 that no images of the queen were allowed until an “official” portrait had been issued, “after which…her Majesty will be content that all other painters and gravers…shall and may at their pleasure follow the said pattern or first portraiture.”
Control of one’s graven image was impossible for anyone two centuries later, even the monarch, and it shows how far the Reformation had moved print and politics in British public life that satirists like James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson could publish as openly as they did. The satirical culture ran from high to low: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, is reported to have called for “someone that will make me a caricatura of Lady Masham [her rival], describing her covered with running sores and ulcers.” No one was safe, but artists had their bêtes noires, and Gillray’s was William Pitt the Younger. His wickedest show
Pitt as the Toadstool, an image of a parasitically fungal Prime Minister planted on a dunghill; Pitt as Midas, his belly swollen with gold but vomiting and excreting worthless paper currency; Pitt as a mock-Colossus…with the judiciary locked between his legs; the “Bottomless” Pitt, literally without a rump, in an age when to “have bottom” meant to have soundness.
Schama is in his element in this various and rambunctious culture. He is in general an excellent de-puffer (delightfully eviscerating Lucian Freud), and he counters the formulated civility of self-presentation exemplified by the Kit-Cat Club with descriptions of late-night drinking sessions, popping waistcoats, and slipping wigs. This was the time, as he puts it,
when the knighted President of the Royal Academy walked the short distance between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, threading his way between piles of ordure; scuttling vermin; howling infants…; a gutter brimming over with slops; criers and vendors in their various styles, of oranges and lemons, of pies and buns, ribbons, buttons, knives, mirrors and whips.
It’s tempting to quote more; the lists are one of the great pleasures of reading Schama. As one would expect from the author of The Embarrassment of Riches, he is very good on stuff and the accumulation of it, on the mixing of materials high and low. In this his sensibility aligns with that of Hogarth, who made much of British art (high and low) in the eighteenth century possible through his resistance to the “blind veneration of the antique” and his insistence on a British school of painting, which would be distinct in technique (moving away from Continental polish), in subject matter, and in philosophy. He could not, however, change the “childish affectation” of flattery required by portrait sitters, nor did he grow rich refusing to “make divinities of all who sit for him.”
Schama’s strong sense of drama sometimes leads him to make too much of his matter. The story of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Churchill, which the prime minister hated and publicly mocked, is entertaining but doesn’t make for the grand opening he wants. His tendency is to overpraise (not necessarily a fault), some of the stories go on too long, and his relish in telling us of bitter demises doesn’t always strike the right note. The refrains and morals that work well on TV—“Don’t go to bed with Fame.” “Don’t go. Don’t leave. Don’t die. Don’t change”—can quickly becoming annoying in print. The section on Samuel Palmer’s landscapes, which seems close to his heart, belongs in another book, while the passages of memoir (especially of his youth in West London) are also calling out for a book of their own. If Schama is predictably good on the material world of the eighteenth century, he is also surprisingly good on women as subjects and artists, offering perceptive readings of photographs of Alice Liddell (see also the photograph of her by Julia Margaret Cameron above), the self-portraits of Gwen John, and (covert) police shots of the suffragettes.
The issue of Britishness, however, is allowed to pass almost unexamined. Many, but by no means all, of the images are by British artists, most are of British sitters (but not exclusively), and made in Britain (though not necessarily) or significant to British culture (yet not unanimously). The subjects are more geographically diverse than one would expect (not just London), but the specter of Europe is a silent presence, everywhere felt but not often acknowledged, except when Rembrandt is invoked to praise something extremely good. The tendency to consider British art in isolation might make sense for a thematic project such as this (especially in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery).
Still, the failure to articulate contemporaneous theories about portraiture removes the works from the rich and sophisticated debates—about selfhood, religion, and representation—of which they were part. British artists drew heavily on ideas from other European countries and from antiquity; it doesn’t only limit the discussion to neglect them, it renders the work ahistoric. The narrative behind a portrait’s creation is only ever a small (if fascinating) part of its power. When portraits are read as personalities and their creation as simply the product of human emotion, the structures of thought and artistic intelligence that conditioned their making begin to disappear from view.