Sunday, 17 July 2011

A Visit to the National Portrait Gallery

Finding myself in London over the weekend, I with a spare hour, I decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery. That makes 2 visits in the last 11 months. In my last visit, there was an exhibition on the portrayal of Lady Jane Grey - particularly the romanticised images from the Victorian era. Whenever I visit, I always find myself in the Tudor gallery. I have plenty of books with glossy pictures of the Tudors in, but there's nothing like coming 'face-to-face', as it were, with the real thing. You notice much more with the actual portrait than you would with any colour print in a book. Take this famous portrait of Anne Boleyn.

The detail on the dress on the actual portrait is amazing, particularly the detail on the fur on the sleeves of her dress, plus the decoration on the neckline. This portrait is described as being in a 'vulnerable' condition, and the gallery is asking for £4,000 in donations to repair it. The wood on which it has been painted is cracking. Visiting the gallery is free and they depend on donations.

Another of my favourite portraits is that of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. Again, seeing the portrait in the gallery is different to seeing it in a book. What strikes me about this portrait is Cromwell's 'double chin' and the lines around his eyes. He looks very severe, and in my opinion is not a 'vanity' portrait.

The gallery has developed the use of 'infra red' technology to 'see' beneath the original layers of the portrait. In this portrait of Thomas Cranmer, the artist changed the position of the hands, the lettering of the books Cranmer is reading, and a ring on the end of a piece of ribbon in one of the books has been painted out. Makes me wonder did Cranmer himself ask for the changes or was it the artist?

This portrait of the young Edward VI is clearly meant to show him in one of his father's typical poses. Infra red technology shows, however, that the pose was more exaggerated than the final portrait. Edward's right foot has been re-painted - he originally had his legs further apart, but maybe the artist realised the pose looked ridiculous on a child. Edward is thought to be around 9 or 10 in the portrait. The arms of England appear in the right corner - these were added after the original portrait has been completed. It begs the question - was this portrait started before the death of Henry VIII? and the arms painted in when Edward became king?

I grew up with this portrait identified as Lady Jane Grey. It was only a few years ago it was identified as Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife. It's all to do with the crown-shaped brooch the sitter is wearing - it's been identified in an inventory of Catherine's jewels. It's a full-length portrait, and I love the detail of her hands.

Of course, the one portrait I would love to see, that of Piers Gaveston, doesn't exist. Edward II wold surely have had a portrait of him painted. Of course, the earlier portraits of monarchs and nobility are much cruder that the Tudor portraits. Edward IV's hands look far too small for him in his portrait. But however 'crude', it would be a dream come true, to use a popular cliche, if such a portrait were discovered.

The gallery allows you to investigate the portraits in a special room on pcs. You can buy prints of the portraits, and it has a great gift shop, selling things such as faux pearl Anne Bolyen necklaces! And of course, the gallery itself is free.


Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for posting these lovely portraits, Anerje! Yes, I'm sure there must have been a portrait of Piers...*sighs* :-)

Anerje said...

if only we had some sort of likeness.....

Gabriele C. said...

This infrared stuff sounds fascinating. I wonder if they could do something like that in gallery in Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe (with a number of Rembrandts, Cranachs, Rubens and others).

Anerje said...

It's a great development Gabriele - and I'm sure they could do it. Just imagine what they could uncover.