The Nation through its portraits review | Daily News

The Nation through its portraits review

A perfect vehicle for Simon Schama’s detailed imagination

Simon Schama opens his vivid and intimate history of the nation’s portraits with one that got away. In 1954, for the occasion of Winston Churchill’s 80th birthday, Graham Sutherland was called upon to create an image of the great man that would be housed in parliament and live down the ages. It was a commission the war artist could not refuse; but he approached it with trepidation.

He drove down to Chartwell, Churchill’s home, in his Hillman Minx and over a period of months there ensued a classic example of the courtship ritual between artist and subject that is at the heart of this book: sitter stubbornly putting his best face forward, painter doing his utmost to see through it.z_p31-The-Nation-02.jpg

The pair got on well. Churchill, seeking to exercise control over the outcome, offered the artist his own studio to use; Sutherland, at the height of his powers, charmed Winnie and Clemmie with his brilliance. The relationship was maintained right up to the moment of the reveal, when Churchill, who had seen a photograph of the final portrait and sought to cancel its presentation, did the next best thing and made an acceptance speech denouncing it as “modern art”.

In 1954, to a room of Tory MPs, there could be no more damning epithet. Laughter rained down on Sutherland – and his monumental portrait – at what should have been a crowning moment of his career. The picture, a masterpiece of curmudgeonly defiance, was never hung in parliament. Churchill’s private secretary subsequently made a bonfire and burned the original in accordance with Churchill’s wishes.

This story, told by Schama with a novelist’s concise flourish, is exemplary of the way he can bring art to life. He is both an inspired communicator of detail and context, an excitable and exciting critic and a sleeve-tugging gossip. The idea of portraiture – its in-built vanities, the inevitable backstories of commission and intrigue, of power and wealth made for conspicuous display – is a perfect vehicle for his detailed imagination. This book is inevitably part of a multimedia event, with a TV series and exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery pending; lip service is paid to the kind of blockbuster comprehensiveness that the BBC can sell, there is a nice history of the NPG itself and so on, but in fact, for the most part, Schama just shoehorns in all the best stories he knows.

Some of his episodic chapters seem to quicken his pulse more than others; the faces of power and the faces of love are more compellingly understood than the faces of fame (Schama can do contemporary social history, he of course goes out of his way to make the case for us all being selfie-portraitists now, but his heart, and rightly so, is really in some of the more extraordinary buried stories of the past). Now 70, he has a powerful career historian’s sense of fleeting time, and an ever empathetic grasp of the human emotion that attends it. His series of essays on portraiture and mortality are worthy of a book in themselves.

The original impulse for making likenesses was as an act of memorial, and an act of love; a desperate gesture against death or parting. (Don’t go. Don’t leave. Don’t die. Don’t change. Don’t disappear, as Schama titles the relevant chapter here.) His account of the extremes that the 17th-century adventurer and poet Sir Kenelm Digby went to in order to preserve his late wife, who died on May Day 1663, reads like a piece of found mythology. Schama’s research focuses on Sir Anthony van Dyck’s spectral painting of Venetia on her deathbed, a portrait drawn from Digby’s erotic memory of his wife when he first disturbed her sleeping. Digby kept the portrait with him at all times and slept beside it “so that when he stirred from his sleep (not that there was much) she would be there with him, lying at the same angle, gently glowing and peaceful”. Schama tells this story with such richness of detail that you are there beside Sir Kenelm in his fitful sleep.

There are plenty of other tales to match this one; a remarkable story in portraits of Maria Cosgrove, wife to the celebrated miniaturist Richard Cosgrove and lover of Thomas Jefferson; a rigorous analysis of two photographic portraits of Alice Liddell, one by Charles Dodgson that was a precursor to Alice in Wonderland, and another by Julia Margaret Cameron, of Liddell as a young woman, self-possessed and “no longer the possession of the story-telling don”.

In the best of these tales – of Francis Bacon’s triptych of his dead lover George Dyer; of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s infatuation with William Morris’s wife, Jane; of Annie Leibovitz’s study of John and Yoko on the day of Lennon’s death – the subjects of the portraits become uncannily alive, which you imagine was always the point.

- The Guardian 

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