A too brief history of British portraiture

September 23 2015

Image of A too brief history of British portraiture

Picture: Wikipedia

For my FT review of the new NPG show 'The Face of Britain', I fiddled around with the idea of a very short history of British portraiture. There wasn't enough space in the end, and it didn't fit in the piece anyway. So, with apologies for indulging myself (it seems a shame to waste the words), here it is below. It is (he says defensively) a personal and far from comprehensive interpretation.

The story of English portraiture starts with a groat. In 1504, Henry VII issued a new coin with his profile portrait on one side. Before then, the coinage had shown a generic, crowned head, unchanged for centuries. Henry’s new portrait was hardly flattering - a mean face overwhelmed by a giant crown - but it was recognisably him, and millions of his subjects, literate or not, now knew what their king looked like. This was the man in charge.

It was the first time an accurate likeness had been used as an instrument of power in England. Portraits had existed before, but they were rare, curiously painted things on parchment or panel seen only by a few. Now, portraits were a way of asserting authority. 

The Tudors embraced portraiture and its political applications. Henry VIII commissioned from Holbein a larger than life-size mural so realistic that visitors trembled before it. For Elizabeth I, portraits helped create the myth of a perpetually youthful Virgin Queen. And once the Tudors had also extinguished, via the Reformation, any British tradition of religious art, there was no turning back. Unable to paint God, we painted ourselves.

Albeit with varying success. In the 16th century, our portraiture was defined by a Holbein-ian emphasis on realism and detail. Wealth and status came first, then likeness (and character rarely at all). As portraiture became more useful, fashionable, and affordable, so the ranks of those portrayed widened; merchants, wives, even children, sprang up in stiff two-dimensional form at the hands of artists who, by international standards, were not particularly good.

Then, in the Stuart age (by which time we were ‘British’) people looked for something better. After a false start with Rubens - who came in 1629 but soon left - Britain finally attracted an artistic superstar when Anthony Van Dyck arrived in 1632 and stayed till his death in 1641. In evolutionary terms, this was the moment British art got up and walked. 

Van Dyck - a former assistant of Rubens, but most of all a devotee of Titian - added space, movement and character to British portraits. Now we were human beings, not props. So popular was Van Dyck’s approach that it was followed, with minor variations, for the next three centuries. Although later 17th Century artists such as Peter Lely came to Britain painting like the austere Dutchmen they were, they soon realised that only Van Dyck’s more vibrant formula brought paying patrons. When it came to art, we British knew what we liked.

A brief exception was William Hogarth in the early 18th Century. But his portraits, veering between caricature and realism, were too honest for the punters and he left (in terms of painting) no followers. Perhaps Hogarth’s best legacy was the energy he put into helping establish a native school of artists. Where previously our British faces were foreign-made, now we had Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence, who took British portraiture to such heights it became our number one artistic export, replicated, bought and admired across the world. Indeed, in Lawrence, Britain produced one of the most naturally gifted painters in oil the world has ever seen, able to handle a brush as easily as you and I breathe. Alas, Lawrence was no good with money, and a reliance on portrait commissions has left us with a limited view of his abilities.

Had Lawrence lived a generation of two later, his art might have been very different, for two developments began to effect the slow death of painted portraiture from the mid-19th Century onwards. The first was Victorian fashion, and the desire to cover everything up; all those frocks, long coats and beards left little of interest to paint. The second was photography, which not only encouraged us to see people caught in a single moment - as opposed to the more lengthy assessment afforded us by the painter - but attuned our eyes to seeing life through a lens (and today, a screen). 

So completely has photography subsumed figurative painting that today, if we like painted portraits at all, we prefer them to be paintings of photographs. Consequently, we have reverted to seeking in our portraiture the same elements our ancestors wanted in the 16th Century; realism, detail (and character rarely at all). The Queen still appears on our coinage.

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