Faces of the Century: A Personal Choice

By Briggs, Asa | History Today, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Faces of the Century: A Personal Choice


Briggs, Asa, History Today


ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR WAYS OF celebrating the end of the century and the millennium has been to publish what a group of people consider to be the top ten, five, three and -- ultimately -- one, greatest names of writers, philosophers, scientists, books, plays, inventions, pieces of music or whatever they have been asked to identify. Similar exercises of a kind that the media like were not unknown a hundred years ago, and it has now been extended by poll to any one who cares to respond. There have even been lobbies. The exercise has something in common with being asked what items to put inside a time capsule. It is, indeed, a time game, with fewer surprises than there are when Time magazine proclaims what used to be called its `Man of the Year' and shows him -- or now often her -- on its front cover.

It is difficult for historians, who are interested in time, to avoid such games, and when I was invited by the National Portrait Gallery to select ten photographs for an exhibition, Faces of the Century, one reason why I gladly accepted was that I thought a professional historian should take advantage of the occasion. I was not expected to judge photographs -- painted portraits were not part of the game -- in terms of quality, in the way I would have been if I had been asked to select ten novels or ten pieces of music Nor did I have the whole world allotted to me as my province. I was expected to focus on Britain. The word `faces', however, was not interpreted literally. `People in places' would have been a more accurate title.

Historians are fully familiar with the practices and problems of selection which can never be overlooked, but they are seldom restricted by rule to a specific number of choices. The historical sources for this century are legion and much that seems to be essential to an understanding of it has to be left out when, with only ten photographs at the historian's disposal, he attempts to `get at' its distinctiveness in time and (even more difficult) to place in order its specific experience.

I had to leave out wars -- something at the very heart of this century. Inevitably personal associations figure in the selection, and perhaps that is the best way to confront it. Doubtless such limited choice associations affect other kinds of historical selection, particularly in social history, more than historians may care to admit. Limited choice makes the point explicit to a social historian. Nonetheless, I wanted to reach beyond autobiography and so chose as my first photograph one by Mass Observation's Humphry Spender. This was taken in the market at Bolton, `Work-town', and as well as faces it shows a placard reminding us: `The Truth is Stranger than Fiction'.

There could be no more tempting a placard for the historian of any century, except perhaps `The Truth is Stronger than Fiction'. Yet Mass Observation is distinctive to this century, both as method and source. I freely admit that my own association with Tom Harrisson, and getting the superb Mass Observation archive to the University of Sussex, influenced my choice.

I chose as my second photographic subject Viscount Northcliffe. The fact that I chose him rather than Lord Reith or Rupert Murdoch was not influenced by personal associations but by my desire to go back in historical association before the beginning of this century to a decade which did much to shape its social and cultural distinctiveness. …

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