Simon Schama’s portraits of a nation

In 2015, Simon Schama joined forces with the National Portrait Gallery and the BBC to explore the history and development of British portraiture. Here, using the themes of love, people, fame, self and power, Simon selects some of the most significant British photographs, paintings and caricatures of the past 800 years...

Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Love

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), 1860 and 1870

Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll, met the Liddell family in 1856. Dodgson would entertain Alice and her siblings with his stories, and they in turn became the subjects of another of his passions: photography. Alice – pictured below left when she was eight – was a particular favourite of the aspiring writer, becoming the inspiration for the high-spirited Alice in his 1865 children’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“Like many Victorian image-makers, Dodgson loved to capture pictures of children – particularly girls – during their ‘age of innocence’, before the awkwardness of adolescence set in,” says Simon Schama. “The frank, composed stare of the young, fresh-faced Alice in contrast to the passive-aggressive pose of her 20-year-old self suggests a dramatic change in the sitter during the 10-year period between the two sittings.”

Dodgson had, in fact, cut contact with the Liddells at some point between the two sittings. Some speculated that Alice’s mother had grown uncomfortable with his attentions towards her daughter, or that his infatuation with Alice had even to led to a proposal of marriage.

King George IV by Richard Cosway, c1780–82

Designed to be kept on, or about, the body like a piece of jewellery, miniature portraits – mainly of loved ones, and often boasting accompanying locks of hair – peaked in popularity during the 18th century.

The future George IV – a hopeless romantic – was a particular fan of the genre, and almost always sent the object of his devotion a miniature of himself. The image below, which may have been painted as a gift for actress Mary Robinson, sees George painted against a cloudy sky, and was designed to show off his features to their best advantage.

“Richard Cosway, who became painter to the Prince of Wales in 1785, was soon painting two or three miniatures a year – the prince’s amorous turnover being high,” says Schama. “Ironically, it was his mother, Queen Charlotte, who inspired his love of the medium. She habitually wore a miniature of her husband, given to her as a wedding present, over her heart as a public expression of her devotion.”

People

Surveillance photograph of militant suffragettes by Criminal Record Office, 1914

After labelling the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) a terror organisation, in 1912, the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office began compiling a photo dossier – the first such security surveillance file – of imprisoned suffragettes. The images were taken using the first long-distance lens made in Britain, and usually showed women exercising in prison yards. They were then distributed to institutions deemed to be under threat of attack by suffragettes, including the National Gallery, which had seen suffragette Mary Richardson attack a Velázquez masterpiece – the Rokeby Venus – with a meat cleaver in March 1914.

Says Schama: “One photograph – of suffragette Evelyn Manesta (no 10) – was even doctored so that the policeman’s arm that gripped her neck in the original version subsequently resembled a harmless scarf!”

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon) by William Hoare, 1733

Pictured in the costume of the Fulbe people of his native Senegambia, west Africa, Diallo – a slave-owner – was himself taken into slavery in 1731, on his return from a slave-selling mission. Diallo was sent to work on a plantation, but eventually found himself in London, where he was celebrated for, among other things, his skills as a translator of Arabic. His is the first known portrait to honour an African subject as an individual and equal.

“Devout black men and women were the first to find their way into solo portraiture,” says Schama. “Here, Diallo is shown with one of the three Qur’ans he wrote from memory, as a symbol of his Muslim piety.”

Fame

Kitty Fisher by Nathaniel Hone, 1765

Dubbed the ‘first celebrity’ in the sense that she was famous simply for being famous, 18th-century courtesan Kitty Fisher was a master of her own image. She shot to fame with a brilliantly conceived stunt in St James’s Park in 1759, which saw her fall spectacularly from her horse during which it was revealed that she was not wearing underwear.

“The incident, which had been staged for maximum exposure, was immediately reported, drawn, printed and sung in ballads,” says Schama. “Kitty had successfully made herself a name.”

Knowing she needed to capitalise on her new notoriety, Kitty employed the services of leading portraitist Joshua Reynolds. Soon, images of the courtesan were appearing in all sorts of mediums, including tiny miniatures that could be concealed inside watch cases or snuff boxes, to be viewed discreetly.

“Kitty intuitively grasped the conditions which could give her her opportunity,” says Schama, “and she knew exactly what she wanted from a painter: an image that was simultaneously refined and teasingly sensual.”

This painting above, by Nathaniel Hone, was described by the Public Advertiser as “a portrait of a lady whose charms are well known to the town”. The reflection in the goldfish bowl shows a crowd of people looking through a window at the goldfish, reflecting Kitty’s life in the public eye. The image even contains a play on her name: the kitten (Kitty) is trying to get into the bowl of fish.

Emma, Lady Hamilton by George Romney, c1785

Born into a poor blacksmithing family in Cheshire, Emma Hamilton (born Amy or Emy Lyon) was a woman who knew how to use and display her considerable beauty to its best advantage. After a period of time in London theatres, Emma became mistress to a string of older men before catching the eye of the most fashionable painter of the day: George Romney.

“Emma sat for Romney 118 times between 1782 and 1784,” says Schama, “and he became entranced with her. His paintings depict Emma in simple cottons and muslins, glowing with flesh-and-blood warmth. Through his works, she became a sensation, and her face could be found in prints, and on china and snuffboxes, everywhere.”

Already famous for her beauty and a renowned fashion icon, Emma – now married – caused an international scandal when she embarked on a very public affair with Lord Nelson. News of their relationship was greedily lapped up by the newspaper-buying public. Emma, like Kitty Fisher, had become one of the first celebrities of her day.

Self

Self-portrait from a Book of Hours by William de Brailes, c1240

“When 13th-century illuminator William de Brailes painted himself into the historiated capital ‘C’ of an English Book of Hours, it was not an ego-announcement, but rather a carefully judged combination of self-promotion and self-effacement,” says Schama.

Depicted kneeling in prayer, eyes closed as the hand of God blesses him with a gentle two-fingered touch to the side of his face, de Brailes has also written in the margin in tiny French script: “W de brail q(ui) me depeint” (“W de Brailes, who painted me”). The image and script were de Brailes’ permanent, and effective, way of reminding his (now unknown) patroness – painted elsewhere in the book – of his skills as an illuminator every time she opened it to pray – eight times a day!

In fact, de Brailes is the only 13th-century English non-monastic illuminator who is known to have signed his work, and this image is widely celebrated as being the first self-portrait in English art.

“The images of de Brailes are probably not true likenesses, though,” says Schama. “Aside from the fact that mirrors were notoriously distorting surfaces, medieval artists were also all too aware of being taken to task for their preoccupation with depicting outward appearances – the vanities of the world.”

Gerlach Flicke; Henry Strangwish (Strangways) by Gerlach Flicke, 1554

This tiny diptych – measuring just 8.8×11.9cm – was painted by Gerlach Flicke (below left), a German immigrant from Osnabrück, north-west Germany, while he was in prison, probably in the Tower of London. While incarcerated there, Flicke met and befriended gentleman-pirate Henry Strangwish (below right), the so-called Red Rover of the Channel in light of his fiery red hair.

“The artist – depicted with his palette – wears an expression of what might, at first, seem like intense self-regard,” says Schama, “but it is more likely working conditions and the small, corroded mirror he was using that account for his intent peering.”

The unlikely duo were imprisoned in the same cell: Strangwish for piracy, and Flicke possibly as part of Mary I’s persecution of Protestants, which had begun in 1553. Flicke was a known portrait artist who had painted men such as Thomas Cranmer.

His work is the earliest known oil self-portrait produced in England. Its inscription reads: “Such was the face of Gerlach Flicke when he was a painter in the City of London. This he himself painted from a looking-glass for his dear friends. That they might have something by which to remember him after his death.” Flicke was eventually released but died in 1558; Strangwish died four years later.

Power

Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, 1941

In 1941, with events at Pearl Harbor fresh in his mind and weary after a long session with the Canadian government, prime minister Winston Churchill walked into the Speaker’s Chamber to be greeted with a blaze of lights and Yousuf Karsh, a young Armenian-Canadian photographer.

“With his face a mask of fury, cigar smouldering, Churchill agreed to a single shot being taken of him, but refused to remove his cigar,” says Schama. What happened next would result in one of the most iconic images (shown below) in British history.

Determined to get the photograph he wanted, Karsh walked up to Churchill and pulled the cigar from his mouth. “He [Churchill] looked so belligerent he could have devoured me,” Karsh later recalled. This was the image he wanted; the camera shutter opened and closed.

“Cheek could go either way with the prime minister and in this case he chose to be amused,” comments Schama. “He even agreed to another shot – a far more warmhearted image (inset, above).”

“Yet it is the glowering image of Churchill that is now remembered. It spoke to millions of invincible resolution. It was the face of the finest hour.”

William Pitt (An Excrescence; A Fungus; Alias – A Toadstool upon a Dung-hill) published by James Gillray; Hannah Humphrey, 1791

Widely celebrated as Britain’s first professional political caricaturist, James Gillray turned caricatures into powerful weapons of political and social criticism. One of Gillray’s primary targets of ridicule was Whig prime minister William Pitt.

“Visual satire could be enjoyed by unlearned as well as learned people,” explains Schama. “For the first time in history – anywhere – politics had become entertainment and no caricaturist was more fought over than James Gillray.”

 Above, Pitt is depicted as a toadstool, planted on a dunghill, with his tentacle roots forming the shape of a crown – “a nod to the common accusation that Pitt’s government sustained itself by feeding off royal patronage”, says Schama.

Gillray’s caricatures turned men of power into objects of comedy.

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Simon Schama is professor of history and art history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits, published by Viking.