Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The National Portrait

On Friday I went to the exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery more or less on a whim - I walked across Hyde Park as I sometimes do, got bored at Hyde Park Corner and jumped on a bus to Aldwych.

The National Portrait has always been one of my favourite galleries, and not so much for the quality of the paintings than their historical significance I think. I remember finding it when I was GCSE age, tucked around the corner behind the National, near the statue of Edith Cavell (who I largely knew about from Agatha Christie of all unlikely sources). I remember it was nice, when studying history, to be able to look at the faces of the people involved, but it was even more interesting to look at the many, many paintings of people I'd never been taught about but who were clearly important and wealthy enough in their time. It gives you a real sense of how selective our record of the past is, seeing all those characters orphaned of their histories.

The Sargent Exhibition is not cheap, and were I under 18 or on the dole I don't think I'd have gone for the concession price - £13 instead of £14.50 - but the rest of the gallery is free and I suppose they have to make their money somewhere. It was worth my £14.50 anyway.

The first thing that struck me was the variation in style and subject: Sargent seems to have painted differently depending on what and who he was portraying. Sometimes the surface of a portrait is smooth and flat, and sometimes raised and worked. Some of the people in the paintings were known to me and some were not. A nice, rich mix.

Here, for example, was Robert Louis Stevenson, in a series of small sketches that showed him so gaunt that if I hadn't known Stevenson was often ill I might have mistaken them for caricature.
It seemed astonishing that someone that thin and fragile could stand and walk to be honest. He looked as if his joints should give and his body fold in on itself like a deckchair and leave a tidy heap of bones on the floor.

Carnation Lily, Lily Rose is lovely, with the lanterns glowing in a way they never do in prints, and I went back three times to try to work out how that illusion was done, and also of course because it's gorgeous and vast and I would like to own it.

I would be less keen to own Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, tall and defiant and beautiful and yet at the same time with something uncertain and almost frantic in those half closed eyes.  It reminded me of the passage about the White Witch that made such an impression when I was a child. Where, having eaten of the apple that confers immortality, she both gets her heart's desire and finds despair. I feel those eyes would unnerve me, gazing into the distance with that expression, utterly impossible to ignore.

But as ever it was the people I didn't know that attracted me just as much. Some had been famous - actors and dancers still well known perhaps to students of acting and dancing, but whose relative obscurity now gave you an awareness of time passing. History expands into the future as well as the past. Where will our famous actors be years after they are gone - is there a Sargent or a Lichfield to leave images of them our descendants will want to look at? Or will they effectively vanish, still archived somewhere on the web in tiresome publicity shots, less and less seen the less they are searched for. Until one day no-one ever looks for them again.

And on that cheery note goodnight.
  A random picture of a Harry Potter owl. No reason.

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