Simon Schama, Professor of Art and History at Columbia University, has been working with the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator, Dr. Tarnya Cooper, to create five new displays for the gallery which reflect his personal view of British portraiture through the ages.
Explaining that his motivation came from Rembrandt and British history itself, he said at the preview – The Face of Britain opens on 16 September, 2015 – that he thought that visual sense was paramount. “Hogarth said that it was the only organ of the body which was fully-formed at birth and we now know early recognition by new-born babies is almost instant.”
Although the eye’s rods and cones still take some time to form after birth, for example, the professor has a point and his displays will attempt to let the viewer see the works, all taken from the NPG’s Collection, in a new light by grouping them in themes rather than the usual chronological approach.
This will mean that Power will, not unsurprisingly, feature Churchill and Thatcher but alongside Elizabeth I, normally separated by a whole floor in the gallery, her portraits hanging in the Tudor rooms. Likewise in Fame, the austere intellectual Thomas Carlyle will be in close proximity to Amy Winehouse, strange neighbours whose juxtaposition could prove fruitful.
Schama also related the story behind the portrait by Graham Sutherland of Winston Churchill and its unveiling in the Great Hall at Westminster in 1954. Commissioned to commemorate the then Prime Minster’s 80th birthday, Churchill, almost through gritted teeth, described it as “a remarkable example of modern art” at which point the distinguished guests dissolved into laughter, Churchill grinned with his best cheeky ‘baby face’ look and poor Graham Sutherland appeared increasingly distraught, clasping his hands to his face and obviously wishing Parliament’s cellars could open beneath him.
Churchill hated the painting describing it later as ‘filthy’ and ‘malignant’ and Lady Churchill felt it made him look like a ‘gross and cruel monster’ and it disappeared from view soon after its unveiling. In fact, it was only in 1979 that it was revealed that Lady Churchill had had it burned.
However, a colour transparency did survive and will be projected in the display with other Churchilliana such as the famous Karsh photo of 1941.
The Face of Britain displays will be accompanied by a book and a BBC2 television series. The displays open to the public at the National Portrait Gallery, London on 16 September, 2015. More information can be found at this link: