'The Face Of Britain' Tells A Nation's History Through Portraits Art historian Simon Schama shares the stories behind the artworks — from the portrait that made an 18th-century actor into a star, to the one Winston Churchill's secretary threw into a bonfire.
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'The Face Of Britain' Tells A Nation's History Through Portraits

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'The Face Of Britain' Tells A Nation's History Through Portraits

'The Face Of Britain' Tells A Nation's History Through Portraits

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Portraiture, according to Simon Schama, is the least free of painterly genres. He writes, (reading) no rose will complain of excessive petal-droop in a still life. No cheese will take you to task over inaccurate veining. But portraiture is answerable as no other specialty to something lying beyond the artist's creativity. That something is the sitter paying the bill. Schama, who is a professor of both history and art history, has written 500 often very entertaining pages called "The Face Of Britain."

It's about the faces immortalized in Britain's National Portrait Gallery and the stories behind the paintings. Simon Schama, welcome, once again.

SIMON SCHAMA: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, after your immersion in hundreds of portraits, people who knew power, love, fame, notoriety, what essential truth about the portrait did you come away with?

SCHAMA: Well, I think it has an extraordinary power beyond its beginnings in vanity or self-congratulation. All portraits are really, or most of them, are triangular relationships because quite apart from a person saying, now, do me at my finest and the artist saying, we'll see about that, sunshine, there is the public - people other than you who'll be looking at it. So very unusually for a work of art, it's an active collaboration. And things can go swimmingly.

That collaboration can produce a kind of enriched image of truly hypnotic power or things can go terribly wrong.

SIEGEL: One of my favorite chapters in your book is the one devoted to David Garrick, the 18th century Shakespearean actor - such a Shakespearean you call him a Bardolater - and especially the painting of him playing Richard III, the painting by William Hogarth. How important was Garrick as a public figure?

SCHAMA: Garrick was extraordinary because he was an overnight star. And the word star was actually used for the very first time. And the public, who had been used to watching Shakespeare being declaimed in a very grandly portentous kind of way, were very surprised to see this small man, this very nimble, athletic man, apparently speak the lines of something as grandly rhetorical as Richard III. So Garrick himself had the sense in which if he was going to make it as a young man, he needed people to know who he was as a personality.

So he went into partnership with a brilliant artist who had a very strong sense of theater, William Hogarth. And before long, there was an enormous painting of Garrick at an extraordinary moment, the moment of Richard III's comeuppance, when he has a bad night and is visited by the ghosts of his many victims. And it was all very well to do this as an extraordinary, huge painting, much bigger than anything else Hogarth did. Hogarth always knew that it was going to become a print.

And once you put that star moment into a print, it could circulate all around the country. And Garrick became, overnight, a sensation. And it was due entirely to the manufacture of his portrayed image.

SIEGEL: You write this wonderful description of David Garrick's eyebrows. You write, (reading) one more arched than the other, they were themselves a theater company of two, those eyebrows - tragedy and comedy, sorrow and slapstick, dancing on the stage of his face.

SCHAMA: Yes, it was one of my more understated passages...


SCHAMA: ...As usual. It's a subject so rich that you do, as a writer, dangerously fall in love both with artist and with the portrayed. And there is something very odd and paradoxical. We think of sitting for the portrait as a torment, that you have to sit still. And as you sit still, of course, your face and your body freezes. So actually, the challenge for a really great artist who wants to embody vitality, and it was essential in the story we've been talking about, in Garrick, is somehow to unfreeze that personality, to unlock it from a kind of rictus position.

That really does bring out the best, actually, whether it's a photographer or a painter. The picture of Churchill that everybody out there, I think, knows, the bulldog warrior scowling - right? - was actually taken by an extraordinary photographer in Canada. Churchill did not want to have his photograph taken. He'd just given a long speech to the Canadian Parliament in the middle of the war. He was ill and he was tired. He comes into a room at the end of the speech.

And the photographer goes over to Churchill and does something extraordinary. He takes the lit cigar out of Churchill's mouth. And that produced the famous look of bulldog fury. And as I say, we think of this as the expression of a man who is determined to see the war through to the end. But it was actually the expression of a man who's had his cigar confiscated.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) This was the photographer Yousuf...


SIEGEL: ...Karsh who did that. But you begin your book, actually, with the description of a portrait that does not and cannot hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London because it doesn't exist anymore. And this was...

SCHAMA: You're giving the game away. Yes, but that's all right. It doesn't...

SIEGEL: Graham Sutherland's 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill 13 years later. He's been prime minister twice. He's going to be honored by this grand portrait. He sits for one of the trendiest painters in Britain and...

SCHAMA: Yes, Graham Sutherland. It's his 80th birthday. It's going to be the moment when the nation, in the shape of Parliament, is going to thank him for saving the country during the war. And Parliament indeed picks this fashionable and rather brilliant portraitist. And then they have a kind of testy relationship. It's a testy relationship because Churchill, you'll remember, is himself a painter. So Churchill thinks of it as a partnership. But he has certain political issues that are desperately important to him.

Unbeknownst to the country, he'd had a stroke a few months before. And because he had a stroke, his own party, the Conservatives, were very keen to get him out of the door in time for the next election. Churchill accepted but he kept on thinking of reasons why he didn't want to go. So when portrait time happened, he wanted a version of himself where he was still in the full prime of his veteran power - an old man but a perpetually energetic man. And what he got from Sutherland, as became quickly apparent, was a portrait of a magnificent ruin, as I say.

And he said, I don't want this presented to me. But the ceremony had to go ahead. And it was a shocking moment. Churchill very stagily got his revenge by facing this huge audience, a television audience as well as the audience in Westminster Hall, and saying, this is a very remarkable example - heavy pause - of modern art. And everybody fell about laughing except for the poor artists, who felt destroyed by the moment.

SIEGEL: Modern art, at the moment, not a positive or even neutral phrase...

SCHAMA: That's right, Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. But this wasn't good enough because when the portrait was given to the family, it was not long before they put it on a bonfire and burnt it.

SIEGEL: So what you have is a picture, a photograph...

SCHAMA: We have a slide...

SIEGEL: ...Of the painting...

SCHAMA: We have a slide, which, for me, shows that it was - if it had survived, it would have been one of the grandest and most expressive and moving portraits ever done of a statesman, I think.

SIEGEL: Simon Schama, thank you very much for talking.

SCHAMA: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Simon Schama's book is called "The Face Of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits."

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