Few writers can bring a painting to life as dazzlingly as Simon Schamaby Andrew Marr / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
This is a terrific, fat book, classic Simon Schama, which doesn’t at all do what it says on the cover. The title, The Face of Britain: The Nation through its Portraits, suggests to this reviewer two things: a reliably sequential narrative, passing in stately fashion from age to age; and a stern attempt at social and geographical inclusivity. Instead, what this virtuoso historian and TV performer has produced is an eclectic, often personal and brilliantly written collection of essays about what interests him. And thank all the prancing muses for that.
Schama’s greatest gift is a sure eye for an extraordinary story. Some of the narratives here are well known: he begins the book with the great face-off between Winston Churchill and Graham Sutherland in 1954, which lead to the destruction of Sutherland’s portrait of the wartime prime minister, a masterpiece by a modernist painter who has unfairly fallen out of favour; and we get Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris; and towards the end of the book, Henry Tonks, the ferocious Slade teacher, turning his pencils and pastels to the problem of facial reconstruction in 1916-17. The first is a story about patronage and its dangers; the last, a meditation on the uses of drawing. In a conventional art history, neither would probably have been included.
Schama reconstructs art history with impish glee. Augustin Edouart. Isaac Fuller. Jonathan Richardson. George Richmond. Samuel Cooper. Richard Cosway. Christina Broome. Each of these produced, on the evidence of this book, some remarkable work, if not of the very first quality. Most art lovers will have heard of one or two of them. Almost nobody outside the staff of the National Portrait Gallery, I daresay, knows them all.
This eclecticism allows the historian to scramble around for stories we ought to know, but mostly don’t: there’s a sizzling essay, for instance, on the bizarre, sadly comic story of the lumpish equestrian statue of Charles I by Hubert Le Sueur, which currently stands on the traffic island known as Trafalgar Square, and which very nearly didn’t survive at all. Anyone familiar with the National Portrait Gallery will have paused by the portrait by Anthony van Dyck of Sir Kenelm Digby, a fat-faced, balding cavalier who looks remarkably like a 20th-century stockbroker got up in fancy dress. The real story of Sir Kenelm’s dogged, tragic love for Venetia Stanley, and his remarkable career as a proto-scientist, privateer and magus, would have provided for some authors a long biography taking many years of blameless study; it’s recounted here in a couple of dozen fascinating pages.