Saturday 31 October 2015

Simon Schama’s Face of Britain.  The National Portrait Gallery, London.

(16 September 2015 – 4 January 2016)

 The Exhibition:

This exhibition explores different themes of portraiture: power, love, fame, self and people.  Each theme was situated in a different part of the gallery; sometimes covering a number of rooms.

I came across this exhibition quite by chance!

It is well worth visiting and each room comprises an extensive collection of images.


Themes that Comprise the Exhibition:


The theme of power is interesting and complex: how should the sitter be represented? The sitter’s self interest in how they are presented to the world in contrast to the artist’s motives: displaying realism of the sitter’s appearance and insights into their psyche.

Notable portraits included ‘Queen Elizabeth I’ (The Ditchley Portrait), 2 photographs of Sir Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh in 1941 depict the charismatic war leader of Britain during WW2.  In contrast there is a painting of Churchill’s face by Graham Sutherland; here Churchill is painted and depicted with majesty like the grand patriarch he was in 1954.


‘Love portraits reverberate with either the artist or the patron’s emotions – whether reciprocated or unrequited’.

Note the image ‘Yoko Ono: John Lennon’ by Annie Leibovitz.


Fame in contrast to celebrity where fame is the result of extraordinary actions; that lead to an enduring legacy and inspires others to greatness.

Notable portraits included a full-length portrait of Sir Francis Drake, William Shakespeare, Lady Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson. 

There is also a photograph of Diana Princess of Wales by Mario Testino.


Face of the People:

This room comprised 37 portraits.  Faces in the crowd, unknown individuals.

 Self and People:

‘Moments of reckoning, addressing themselves to posterity ‘Who am I?’

Self-portraits of artists mainly figure in this section.  These include Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney and Lucien Freud.



This is a thought-provoking exhibition.  The qualities that are considered in a portrait and what are the artist and indeed the sitter trying to convey to the reader represent deep and complex motivations.

Also, which portrait best sums up the qualities of being British and possibly combining all themes covered in the exhibition.  Deep and thought provoking, well worth seeing!