Few writers can bring a painting to life as dazzlingly as Simon Schamaby Andrew Marr / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits by Simon Schama (Viking, £30)
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.
Sir Kenelm is followed immediately by the story of the undersized Regency artist Richard Cosway, also known as “Tiny Cosmetic,” which allows Schama to rehearse, with fine gusto, the story from the same period of Prince George’s borderline insane pursuit of Maria Fitzherbert—before veering off to the tale of Maria Hadfield, Cosway’s wife, and her fine Parisian romance (probably, but not certainly, unconsummated) with Thomas Jefferson. Both of these are in the end stories about our desperate fear of being left by the person we love and they give a sense of the rich, oily pickings Schama has rooted up along what would have been, in most historians’ hands, a predictable journey.
The structure of the book, I assume, follows the structure of the television programmes it accompanies, so it is thematic rather than sequential—“The Face of Fame,” “The Face of Power”—with the shorter essays gathered into themed sections. This means that it can feel, in the hand, mildly disorientating. We never know after one essay quite where we are going next, or why. Some readers may find the zigzagging in time irritating or distracting. But its strength is that it allows Schama the freedom not to be bored, and thus not to bore the reader. Wherever he chooses to, he leaves conventional art writing far behind, to gallop off on another cracking tale—of how Francis Drake was seen by the Spanish; or where Emma Hamilton came from before she bumped into Horatio Nelson; or little David Garrick, the rain and the Shakespeare cult.
But we know, from his earlier books on Rembrandt, Rubens and modern art, that Schama has an avid, restlessly shrewd eye for painting. The best art writing in the book is truly exhilarating and happens when Schama’s dander is up and he is almost panting with excitement about something he’s just seen. His account of Laura Knight’s self-portrait while painting Ella Louise Naper in the rosy-bottomed nude (a radical piece of picture-making, even if bringing in Barnett Newman, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp might be stretching it a tad) is not something I will forget. Nor his lovely and sensitive account of an early sketch by Thomas Gainsborough of his daughters chasing a butterfly—and the sad story of what followed. Nor again, his description of the 1826 self-portrait by that tormented visionary Samuel Palmer, which Schama rightly compares to Rubens and Rembrandt: “The roughly cut hair, perhaps self-sheared, is more lovingly handled in black chalk than any barber could have managed and with a lot more attentiveness, too, for Palmer has found a way to draw dirt-stiffened, sweat-stuck individual hairs so that they cling greasily together, exposing glistening areas of his forehead.”
The quotation introduces the unavoidable issue of the Schama style. He is, to filch one of the 18th-century words he clearly much enjoys, a bit of macaroni writer—flamboyant, exuberant, a word-importer and a performer. It’s the opposite of the George Orwell and newspaper style-guide approach—make it simple, cut it down, prune away everything you don’t absolutely need. Again, I suspect some people may find this irritating, though for me the exuberance almost always works.
Here he is, opening his chapter about Francis Bacon and his self-destructive lover George Dyer: “1963. Man, 30-odd, walks into a pub. He’s wearing a cocky expression and a dab too much brilliantine; bit of a pompadour and his eyebrows look like two caterpillars are having a conversation on his forehead. But the Stepney spiv style is alright. London has barely begun to swing, Carnaby Street still has traffic running through it, and Soho means looking sharp the old way: bigger lapels, broad shoulders, clean-shaven with a bit of a curl to the lip; tight knot to the tie. George Dyer has all this. He’s done a little time in the nick so he knows what’s what, and he knows that a man who also likes a little grease on his mop is giving him the once-over.”
You’d read on, wouldn’t you? And here, again in London, he is ventriloquising Godfrey Kneller as he ushers in up to 14 sitters in a day in his 1690s workshop: “A very good morning; please be seated, there in the light, just so; excellent; thank you thank you, now if you would be so good as to hold quite still for a time, I would be most obliged… Mr such and such will be sure to let you know when the likeness is done. Truly most obliged. Good day to you. Next, I believe? Are yes, Lady so and so. Pray, do come in…” This isn’t what you get from conventional historians or conventional art writers, more’s the pity. Even if sometimes you wonder whether there isn’t a bit too much brilliantine, and at other times he pushes slangy informality pretty far, you read on. As that extract implies, Schama is very much a metropolitan writer, a creature of London, New York and, occasionally, Edinburgh. The most immediately affecting writing is autobiographical, when he heads back to the Notting Hill of his youth to meet the black photographer Charlie Phillips, or when he recounts the loss of his much-valued collection of cigarette card portraits in a boys’ gambling game. This made me think that the next Schama book, or perhaps the next-but-one, really has to be an autobiography. It would, I gently suggest, really be something.
Away from the metropolis, and his own world, he has the humane curiosity of a good historian. There is an essay about Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who took famously stunning early photographs of Newhaven fishwives and their husbands, which might be the best thing in the book. He just looks harder. He empathises.
I’m beginning to rave. This book isn’t perfect. I would really love to have read Schama on Allan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn—those biting Georgian wives, those great, livid, farmers and traders—and am genuinely puzzled why they don’t appear. Plus, I never want to read about Alice Liddell ever again. I think he’s too fond of Francis Bacon, excessively censorious about Lucian Freud and borderline brutal about Tracey Emin. He tells us that the first self-portrait in English art was made around 1240 by William de Brailes in a psalter. But James Hall, in his recent The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, has tracked down a much earlier self-portrait by St Dunstan of Glastonbury, from around 950, in which he crouches at the feet of Christ. Other misses include John Singer Sargent, whose reputation was recently rebuilt at the National Portrait Gallery, and who did for the Edwardians what Joshua Reynolds did for the Georgians, but with more wit; and David Hockney. If you want to know what the super-rich look like now, with their insecurities and strange clothing, Hockney is where you have to go.
Yet it’s the pathetic default mode of the modern book review to attack a book for all the things it isn’t, rather than look closely at what it is. And this is both excellent and highly unusual. Schama has written books which will still be bought and talked about a century from now—I’m thinking of The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Rembrandt’s Eyes. He’s been at the top of his game for most of his career and he hasn’t lost an ounce of zest or intelligence. Damn him.
Television tie-in books rarely garner enthusiastic reviews. They are designed, almost handcrafted, to sandpaper the pursed insecurities of the academy. All I will say is that every reader of this magazine should have a copy of Simon Schama’s The Face of Britain—no, not in a bookcase, but right there on the desk, broken-backed. He can look at something we think we know and make it seem fresh and new to us, and this is a great gift. He very nearly persuaded me to find George Romney and Johann Zoffany interesting.