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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Painting History

I recently went to the National Gallery's Delaroche exhibition, centred on his famous painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey. This proved to be particularly thought-provoking on several levels. It said much about the perception of art in different times: Delaroche's almost photographic realism became deeply unfashionable in the post-Impressionist era, and is still probably frowned upon in the more right-on metropolitan galleries. The exhibition also suggests that the educated and artistic classes of the nineteenth century had a rather wider interest in, and deeper knowledge of, the history of neighbouring countries than is often the case today. It's difficult to imagine many French artists today drawing inspiration from British history, and the less said about British ignorance of European history, the better (witness the recent faux-pas by a Prime Minister with a PhD in History, namely muddling the Bourbons and Habsburgs as the subjects of the famous quip about having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.)

Above all, though, the Delaroche exhibition provides some fascinating insights into the way in which 'history' is all about image creation, and the images produced in different genres have a way of feeding off each other. Thus Delaroche's equally famous painting of 'the Princes in the Tower' was based upon Shakespeare's account of their deaths in 'Richard III'; in turn, Delaroche inspired a host of imitators, influenced portrayals of the scene on film, and still shapes many people's mental image of the fate of the princes. Many of my earliest impressions of historical events were shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by John Kenney's illustrations of L Du Garde Peach's Ladybird books, and I belong to the generation that can't think of Elizabeth I without thinking of Glenda Jackson, or of Henry VIII without thinking of Keith Michell. (Pity the younger generations whose mental images of that monarch have been shaped by the mind-numbing The Tudors...) Having started out as an academic historian, I'm particularly conscious of the potential dangers of such image-making when writing fiction. For example, my portrayal of Charles II in Gentleman Captain is based on my reading of all the major biographies of the king, of many of his own notes and letters, and of the contemporary accounts of many of those who knew him - but I also know that somewhere at the back of my mind are the countless screen portrayals by the likes of George Sanders, James Villiers (in The First Churchills), Sam Neill (in Restoration) and Rupert Everett (but certainly not the risible portrayal of the king by John Malkovich in The Libertine). So Delaroche is part of a long and respectable tradition of shaping our perception of historical figures through different forms of art and media; but he also provides proof of the insidious power of such image making. After all, who can look at his 'Lady Jane Grey' without implicitly making the connections 'Jane = Innocent', 'Protestant = Good', 'Mary Tudor = Catholic = Bad'?

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