The Face of Britain accompanies Simon Schama’s BBC Television series on British portraits, and the form of the book keeps very closely to the form of the broadcasts. There are examinations of single faces, in single lives, ranging from the earliest days when real faces were studied and represented, to photographs of life in Notting Hill in the 1960s and 1970s taken by the Jamaican-born Charlie Phillips. The studies are roughly but not narrowly chronological, and are arranged thematically in groups – “The Face of Power”, “The Face of Love”, “The Face of Fame”, “The Face in the Mirror”, “Faces of the People”. Most of the studies concentrate on one face, one person – the historical and psychological moment, the relation between artist and subject.
Schama begins with a meditation on faces and how we scan them. Like him, I knew my children were searching to see my face from the moment of birth, even though theory then said this was not possible. Eyes, he says, are the part of our body that does not change size. How do we recognise individuals in their portraits? How do we know what Francis Bacon or Thomas Gainsborough saw when they made their works – or Samuel Palmer, or Gwen John?
Schama’s first example is the painting that Graham Sutherland made of Winston Churchill in 1954. He writes succinctly and splendidly about the historical moment, Churchill’s expectations, Sutherland’s lack of prior thought about painting history. Churchill and his wife disliked the work intensely and it was covertly destroyed. Schama shows us a transparency that survived – and remarks that it “is enough to make it painfully clear what was lost in the fires of Lady Churchill’s sorrow and anger”. He knows the history, the biography, and the art history, and connects them subtly.
The succession of finite broadcasts, one after the other, turns out to be a wonderful form to read. We meet the individuals, painters and painted, in their own worlds, as we would in an art gallery, before moving on to the next – and yet the juxtapositions change the individuals.
“The Face of Power” shows us the iconic images of Charles I by van Dyck and others, as well as Cromwell in a marvellous miniature by Samuel Cooper, warts and all; Schama comments on the painterly brilliance of the warts: “so lovingly rendered that they cast their own individual shadows, from the pimply one at the crease of the brow to the majestic King Wart beneath his lower lip, incompletely concealed by a small beard”. This section also contains the family faces of power – the ambivalent domesticity of Victoria and Albert, the aristocrats of the 18th-century Kit-Cat Club – and also James Gillray’s ferocious mockery of royalty and politicians: Pitt as a toadstool on a dunghill, or as Death in a lethal parody of Milton. Yet the image that sticks most in the memory is Gillray’s image of himself, drawn as “the dimness closed in” and titled Pray Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Blind Man. He is grey, with closed eyes and few teeth, begging; and this sadly decrepit figure is scribbled over with shadows and spidery blots in fine black lines, unfinished faces and figures.
Towards the end of “The Face of Love” Schama juxtaposes two studies of obsession – Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s repeated paintings of William Morris’s wife, Jane, or Janey. It is interesting that I, too, keep these images side by side in my mind. My primary emotion about them is a ferocious embarrassment.
Carroll’s photographs of prepubescent girls were part of a cult in the early days of photography. They represented innocence. He had to proceed with caution in asking for permission – above all for photographs of naked nymphets in their purity and truth. Alice Liddell lived her life as the girl to whom the Wonderland was told. Reading little girls like me admired the written Alice, for her brave and intelligent independence, whatever mad thing came her way. Yet what we see here of the real Alice is not loveable.
Schama juxtaposes three images of Alice Liddell. One in carefully arranged tatters, a little girl holding out a begging hand, both quizzical and sad. It is hard to like her and hard not to feel she is being used. Then there is the photograph Carroll took of Alice when she was 18 – an image to which I return again and again. She is a young woman with her hair up, sitting in a leather-covered chair, in a pretty dress, and corseted. Her head is turned aside. She is looking down. Her mouth is sulky – or something stronger than sulky. Her body is embarrassed in an angry way. What was the Reverend Charles Dodgson thinking?
And then Schama prints a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron from 1872 of Alice as Pomona: looking ahead, still with the corners of her mouth downturned. Schama argues that Cameron’s strong woman, long-haired and inviolate, is both a deliberate reference to Dodgson’s poses and an assertion of female independence.
There is something terrible about Rossetti’s renderings of Janey Morris’s louring beauty. Schama prints a photograph of her at Morris’s ideal country home – Kelmscott, from which Morris generously went away, in order to leave Rossetti and Janey together. Janey is brandishing willow boughs, part of the language of Morris’s life and work. She is unforgettable, threatening and a captive. I was amazed to find that L S Lowry of all people collected paintings of Janey – because he found her terrifying. I try to imagine how Morris felt, at home with these images by his wife’s lover on his wall. Janey, like Alice Liddell, is being used by her artist-lover.
“The Face in the Mirror” deals with self-portraits, and particularly the rendering of women, and women’s bodies, by women. Schama interweaves the stories of two great artists – Laura Knight (1877-1970) and Gwen John (1876-1939). How does a woman present herself, in a world where nudes have been desirable or repellent; objects, not subjects? There is a wonderful discussion of Knight’s self-portrait of 1913, which Schama says is a masterpiece. In it, she is standing in the foreground, seen from behind, in businesslike clothes, a scarlet working jacket and “her favourite high-crowned black fedora”. She is painting a female nude from the back, whom we see on a raised stage and on canvas – an intricate form, rendered exactly. The impression of work being done, the relation between the women, is complicated yet simple. Schama’s background descriptions of other standing naked women with clothed companions is masterly. He made me look and learn.
I know of Gwen John, I thought – I look at her paintings whenever I can, and have always been happy that her then more famous brother Augustus insisted she was a better painter than he was. Like Knight, she painted herself clothed with a naked model. Schama shows two self-portraits, one from 1902, calm in a red blouse with a cameo at her neck (the only painting she signed) and the other, a few years later, in a brown shirt, holding a letter. Schama recounts her wild and desperate affair with Rodin in heart-rending detail; it changed her from poised New Woman to maniacal letter-writer and obsessive sex object: “My master. I am not an artist. I am a model and I want to remain your model for ever.” Later she went back to drawing and painting: nude women, a series of nude self-portraits, “executed with a kind of wistful tentativeness, images that seem to stir and move a little in the empty white space as if blown by a draught coming through the window”.
As he does throughout The Face of Britain, Schama deepens our understanding and excites our interest – the two women illuminate not only each other but also the work of Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono. He is a great storyteller and we learn something new on every page.
A S Byatt’s most recent book is Ragnarok: the End of the Gods (Canongate)
Simon Schama appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 29 November
The Face of Britain: the Nation Through its Portraits by Simon Schama is published by Viking (£30, 603pp)
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis