Face value

by Stephen Jewell / 31 December, 2015
People fall in love with faces, not bodies, says art historian Simon Schama. But what about portraits?
Simon Schama: “Our sense of identity is vested in the face.” Photo/BBC
Simon Schama: “Our sense of identity is vested in the face.” Photo/BBC

"I call it the least tidy genre in art because it’s the one where the artist ostensibly has complete control.” Simon Schama is talking about portraiture, the artistic form that lies at the heart of his new book and a BBC television series, Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits. The 70-year-old professor of history and art history at New York’s Columbia University and art critic for the New York Times  admits the subject has “long been on my mind”, having previously explored the process in his 1999 biography Rembrandt’s Eyes.

“You have a sitter and often they are paid to be there, so there is always another party involved other than your own artistic inspiration,” he says. “If you’re like me, half an historian and half an art historian, you want this rather cluttered, slightly messy and uncontained relationship between art and its subject matter.”

As he demonstrates with the example of Winston Churchill’s adverse reaction to Graham Sutherland’s less than flattering depiction of him in his 1954 portrait, those concerned don’t always appreciate the end product. In a BBC broadcast, the former British Prime Minister infamously described the painting as “a remarkable example of modern art” that combined “force with candour”. Sutherland was publicly humiliated as some critics praised the authenticity of its likeness whereas others labelled it a disgrace.

“When I was talking about that confrontation, it was very important for me to sketch it quite richly, and to take in Sutherland’s career as an official war artist during World War II,” says Schama. “Having been in London during the dark days of the Blitz, he had a strong sense of being an artist of record of British lives.”

Commissioned to mark Churchill’s 80th birthday, the portrait was originally intended to hang in the Houses of Parliament, but it never went on display and some time later it was reportedly destroyed on Lady Churchill’s orders.

A 1941 photo of Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh. Photo/BBC
A 1941 photo of Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh. Photo/BBC


“Sitters often have very complicated feelings, and they might not like what the artist has done,” says Schama. “They might have a much more idealised version of themselves in their own head. Art history is full of cases being brought against artists. Rembrandt faced this with a gruff old patron who didn’t like the way that this young woman, probably his daughter, had been painted by him.”

According to Schama, the three-way relationship between the way the sitter, the artist and whoever paid for the portrait – whether it is the family, a public institution or a private company – results in an intriguing tension that is manifested on the canvas. “It creates an appetite for mischief. The instability of the three points of the creative triangle is what makes portraiture so interesting.”

The first episode begins with a birth. Schama suggests “when we become human, when our eyes adjust to the raw light of the world, the first thing we see is a face”.

Consequently, our reliance on facial recognition can be traced back to when we were young. “Our sense of identity is vested in the face. We don’t recognise each other’s identities by looking at other features. Clearly, it’s the face that says it all. People fall in love with faces, even though they think they fall in love with bodies.”

Emphasising his point by titling his book’s introduction “A Pre-Face”, he suggests it is also embedded in our language. “A persona in Roman theatre was indeed a face, although it was actually a mask,” says Schama. “It was essentially the face that an actor puts on to represent a character. I’m not a Latin scholar, but the word ‘persona’ was used back then in a more vernacular way, so it takes a slightly more poetic shortcut there.”

Divided into sections dedicated respectively to the Faces of Power, Love, Fame, Self and People, the book uses portraiture to chronicle British history, criss-crossing the centuries as it ranges from medi­eval times to the modern day. “They kind of suggested themselves, as I didn’t want to do a chronological plod-through,” Schama says.

“Some people will mind that more than others, but essentially it’s because with each of those rubrics – each of those themes – the artist is having to do a different kind of thing. A portrait of a powerful person, even if you’re caricaturing them like [18th-century political cartoonist] James Gillray, still depends on some kind of inbuilt politics.”


Admitting “it’s a stretch because even in five programmes there’s only so much you can do”, he has focused almost exclusively on Britain, although he hopes it will still have relevance beyond the UK. “There is no one face to Britain, which is – very gloriously, in my opinion – a very multicultural country,” says Schama, who produced the project in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery in London.

“Britain was the first country to have a National Portrait Gallery, and that’s something that’s since been repeated all over the world,” he says of the gallery in Trafalgar Square, which was established in 1845 by historians-turned-politicians Philip Stanhope, Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle. “It was something that arose in the 19th century when Britain was at the height of its imperial power. At the time, Britain was doing quite badly in the Crimean War, so there was a sort of crisis of morale, as it had overextended its imperial reach. Stanhope, Macaulay and Carlyle understood that the faces in the portraits gave people a connection with the past.”

Despite the National Portrait Gallery first emerging during the Victorian era, however, Britain’s colonial heritage plays only a passing role in the narrative. “At the end, we talk about communities that are part of British life that have come over here as a consequence of the imperial experience,” says Schama.

“Charlie Phillips, the great Afro-Caribbean photographer, came over from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation in the 1950s. He took some very poignant photographs of Notting Hill at the time of the race riots in the late 60s/early 70s.”

One of several studies by artist Graham Sutherland as preparation for his portrait to mark Churchill’s 80th birthday. Photo/BBC
One of several studies by artist Graham Sutherland as preparation for his portrait to mark Churchill’s 80th birthday. Photo/BBC


While visiting New Zealand for Writers Week at the 2014 Inter­national Arts Festival, Schama spent time at Auckland Art Gallery. “It was full of amazing portraits of Maori chieftains and elders done by artists like Goldie, which really were incredibly moving and powerful,” he recalls. “Some of them made absolutely no concessions to westernisation whereas some of them were partly westernised, so you could say the story of the country was deeply engraved in the assumptions made in those concessions.”

Many of this nation’s portraits reside in the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington. The diverse collection of the gallery, which was founded in 1992, reflects New Zealand’s rich if somewhat limited tradition of portraiture, which dates back to when the first European settlers arrived in 1840.

Freelance New Zealand curator and author Richard Wolfe says, “New Zealand’s earliest resident artists produced varying interpretations of Maori. The best-known images were conventional studio portraits produced in the late 19th and 20th centuries, which recorded elders of what was perceived to be a dying race. In following decades, this nostalgia and sentimentality was replaced by a more direct and contemporary approach to Maori subjects.

“The landscape was the preferred subject for this country’s early artists, and the development of local portraiture was further delayed by the lack of formally trained artists,” says Wolfe. “For those reasons, and also because of the arrival of photography, painted portraits may not have provided the definitive images of many – if any – leading New Zealanders.”

One of the most popular portraits of a New Zealander is a photograph of Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, taken not long after he led the Labour Party to its first victory, in the 1935 election. “His Government was responsible for landmark social welfare reforms,” says Wolfe. “His photograph was to be found on display in the homes of grateful citizens throughout the nation.”

But although early artists were beholden to British styles and conventions, their successors started moving in their own direction. “English artist and teacher Christopher Perkins arrived here in 1929 and advised its artists to avoid the European tradition,” says Wolfe. “Instead, he recommended they respond to the distinctive atmospheric conditions and subject matter. A leading exponent of the local regional realist style was Rita Angus, whose 1942 portrait of Betty Curnow is a kind of icon of the Auckland Art Gallery collection, and perhaps the nation’s favourite painted portrait.”

Wolfe says, “There were suggestions the painted portrait in New Zealand reached a low point in the late 1960s, succumbing to competition from the camera.” However, it is now in impressive health, having built on a revival in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by a new generation of young artists, including Robin White, Ian Scott and Michael Smither.

“They brought new enthusiasm to what was seen as a worn-out tradition,” he says. “By comparison, today’s artists – among them Richard McWhannell, Marianne Muggeridge, Gavin Hurley, Martin Ball, Nigel Brown and Peter Stichbury – present a wide diversity of styles, which suggest both the versatility and continuing relevance of painted portraits.”

Since the development of the then-revolutionary Instamatic camera in the early 1960s, rapid advances in photography have continued to affect portraiture worldwide over the past four decades. More recently, the advent of digital cameras and social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook have democratised the medium, although some critics argue that it has also devalued it.

“We’re all portraitists now, which is something I’ve often said that I have mixed feelings about,” says Schama. “On one hand, I could be grumpy and say that it has trivialised the whole genre, as you can take thousands of self-portraits and put them online. That may well be true, as what portraits of the selfie kind have done is make it harder for portrait artists, since they now have an obligation to be more innovative. But on the other hand, having all those faces on our phones is a way of being connected with others by forming our own little personalised tribe, and there’s nothing profoundly wrong with that.”

Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits (Viking, $75) is available now. The TV series will run on Sky Arts in March.

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