Review: The Face of Britain

In a wonderfully energetic lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre last week, Simon Schama delivered a snapshot of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition ‘The Face of Britain – The Nation through its Portraits’. The exhibition opened on September 16 to favourable reviews, coincided with the release of an accompanying book and will be followed by a five part series on BBC2. Schama’s evident intellectual investment and infectious enthusiasm for the arts, and in particular here, portraiture, added a special valour to the representation of each portrait discussed.

The full collection of portraits, including pictures by Henry Tonks and Sir Anthony van Dyck, serves as an affirmation of British diversity and established notions of British cultural identity. However the strength of the collection lies in a very deliberate and diligent attempt to once again capture the nation’s imagination for what it means to British. Indeed, Schama is very upfront about ‘The Face of Britain’ being a mechanism to tell the British people who they are. This is, as Schama explains, what the National Portrait Gallery was designed to show. My knee-jerk reaction to this idea was to immediately think, ‘but this is one person’s opinion of what it means to be British’. However, to focus too much on this issue risks losing the bigger picture of what Schama achieves. Through his various presentations of this exhibition, what Schama really accomplishes is bringing the visual arts and in particular art history to the publics attention in a way that few are able to today. Schama breathes new life into a genre whose relevance has been called into question by popular sensibilities, by giving charming stories and personalities to sitters represented in each of the portraits. Some stories relate to love, some to aspirations of power, whilst others present the intrepid humanitarian work of previously under-appreciated souls as emblems of British history. In this vein, Schama remarkably elegantly incorporates a notion of altruistic and philanthropic history as an important facet of British identity.

According to Schama, the potentiality of the bond created with eye contact, accompanied by the stories of each, allows for the viewer to be transported back to that particular place in time and connect with the history on an almost personal level. This imaginative philosophy suggests why portraiture has proved of enduring interest, offering a fantastic mechanism to connect with people and history perhaps better than any other visual medium. Rather than transporting people into a different time however, what the ‘Face of Britain’ enables, as a celebration of British history and identity, is sense of belonging today. By carving out what it has meant to be British and enabling the potential of personal connections and bonds to be realised with each portrait, Schama guides the audience to understanding how that history is still important today through the themes of love, power, people, fame, and self. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the exhibition invites everyone to find their own personal connection with this history. The result is that Schama’s series has eloquently packaged up an idea of British identity, quite literally given it a face and placed it squarely in the nation’s living room.

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), albumen carte-de-visite, 25 June 1870
Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), albumen carte-de-visite, 25 June 1870

Simon Schama’s dedication and excitement for art history and the visual arts emanates from every inch of the ‘Face of Britain’. I am a firm believer in the value of art history as an educational tool and given Schama’s success at placing the arts at the forefront of popular imagination, I can only hope that there is more where this came from.

Nirmalie Mulloli

‘The Face of Britain – The Nation through its Portraits’ exhibition at the London National Portrait Gallery will run from September 16 2015 – January 4 2016Simon Schama’s Face of Britain five part series will be broadcast on BBC2 from September 30.

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