Magazine article The Spectator

Interpreting History

Magazine article The Spectator

Interpreting History

Article excerpt

Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

National Gallery, until 23 May

Just up the road from where I write is the dramatic ruin of Framlingham Castle, the historical seat of the Howard family and the Dukes of Norfolk. The castle was granted to Princess Mary by her half-brother King Edward VI, and she took refuge there when on Edward's death his second cousin Lady Jane Grey was named as his successor, rather than she herself. The country was in the grip of its worst period of internal religious strife, which Protestant Edward had tried to avoid by commending devoutly Protestant Jane to the crown. But the Catholics would have none of it, and Mary's star was very soon in the ascendant.

She rode from Framlingham to London to lead the counter-coup which would unseat Lady Jane Grey, and which would result in her own coronation as Mary I, soon to earn the nickname of Bloody Mary.

I mention this here because the centrepiece of this new exhibition is one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery, 'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey', by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). For the duration of this show, the public will have to pay to see it, in company with other paintings by Delaroche and some by his contemporaries.

The first question to be addressed is whether the display mounted around it is worth the hefty admission charge (£8 or concessions).

At once the chief problem with exhibitions using the Sainsbury Wing emerges - its inflexibility. There are a certain number of rooms there, and exhibitions are deemed to have to fill them. Why? Value for money, I suspect. Perhaps if half the rooms were shut off the public would baulk at the admission charge. But if the show is plumped out with minor work (engravings, for example), then surely visitors will feel cheated? It's a delicate balance.

Who, you may ask, was Paul Delaroche?

An Anglophile Frenchman, he was an academic painter who managed to be the most successful artist in Europe at the time when our National Gallery was first established.

His popularity rested upon the ability to mingle the Romantic with well-researched and eye-catching realism. Undoubtedly sentimental and addicted to narrative suspense, Delaroche nevertheless gave the public what it wanted. The irony remains that it took a foreigner to interpret our history for us.

The first room of the exhibition shows how artists were drawn to the depiction of the past, mostly in a pious or poetic way. In this collection of lacklustre pictures (especially dreary is the dim church interior by Granet, better remembered today for the museum which bears his name in Aix-enProvence), the painting by Richard Parkes Bonington based on Walter Scott's 'Quentin Durward' stands out for its lively and vigorous brushwork. The second room focuses on the impact of England as subject matter for the susceptible French and shows us two large canvases by Delaroche: 'The Princes in the Tower' and 'Cromwell and Charles I'. I wish I could find these pictures more interesting. The walls between them are filled with engravings and a sheet of rather stiff drawings of armour by Delacroix. The third room concentrates on the influence of the theatre on art, and includes drawings by Delaroche. Much more beguiling is another little picture by Bonington; his paint-handling far superior to anything Delaroche could manage. …

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