Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

A topic other than elitism

September 3, 2010 · 2 Comments

Since so many people have already written about the elitist tendencies of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, I won’t spend any more time on that aspect. What I found interesting was the change in what types of figures were included throughout the years covered in the collection.  In the Tudor rooms, only members of the royal family or other important government/magisterial figures were displayed (several of whom seemed to be Elizabeth’s “favorites…”). By the time of the Restoration, more portraits of social or artistic figures were included, and by the time of the Romantics, there were more portraits of philosophers, artists, writers, poets, social activists, etc… than there were of strictly governmental figures. The best explanation that I can come up with for this is the (late) arrival of the Renaissance in Britain during the Tudor reign, which gave rise to popularity for artists, playwrights (cough, Shakespeare, cough), and the like. This movement into non-political realms then continued with the Enlightenment and the growth of both the middle class and leisure time, so people were able to focus more on literature, philosophy, and science.

I really enjoyed the Gallery (except for maybe the twentieth-century room, and the self-portrait done in blood. Weird.), but I feel as though the collection was a very safe one. Almost every portrait seemed to be of someone who has had a positive effect on Britain’s image. There were no portraits (or very few) of political dissidents or very radical thinkers, nor were there any images of people who weren’t perfectly coifed and dressed. This may be due in part to the availability of portraits; I have no idea what sort of resources the museum has been able to draw on. I do think, however, that the collection could acknowledge that Britain’s history involves some ugliness (beyond some of the fashions in the paintings).

I focused on the portrait of Jane Austen, done by her sister, Cassandra because a) she’s my favorite author and b) it’s a very awkward portrait. I mean, it’s the only known image of Austen that was done from life, and she looks seriously pissed off.  (Image from National Portrait Gallery, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/largerimage.php?sText=Austen&search=ss&OConly=true&firstRun=true&LinkID=mp00179&role=sit&rNo=1)

Austen is turned away from her sister and her arms are crossed, which makes her seem very closed, as if she did not want to sit for her portrait. Since Cassandra never finished the sketch, this may have been the case. Her lips are pursed and her nose seems slightly wrinkled, giving her a definite look of annoyance. Friends and family remarked that hte portrait captured a little bit of Jane, but that Cassandra had more or less missed the boat as far as a real likeness goes. I think that this was probably because drawing was considered a proper and genteel activity for women during the Regency Period, and Cassandra may have just been practicing on her sister.

This portait is especially interesting to me after the time that I spent at the Jane Austen Centre yesterday. In the museum, there was another portrait of Austen, done by a modern artist, Melissa Dring.  Dring took Cassandra’s portrait and descriptions of Austen from the written accounts of people who knew her in order to come up with this new image. I think that her eyes are twinkling a bit too much here, but at least she doesn’t look so ticked off.

Categories: 2010 Holly · Museums
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2 responses so far ↓

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Sep 4th 2010 at 18:10

    “Since so many people have already written about the elitist tendencies of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, I won’t spend any more time on that aspect”- Hurrah, dahling!

    Were you as thrilled as I was to actually see this portrait in the flesh?

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 5th 2010 at 12:59

    I really like this post, Holly. I agree that we’ve spent a little too much time focusing on the, um, color scheme of the Gallery, but I had never thought of the collection as “safe” in this way. Now that you mention it, I think you’re absolutely right. In the more contemporary sections the collection gets a little more gritty and subversive – the portrait of David, the Nigerian immigrant, contained in the BP competition section springs to mind – but for the most part, this is definitely a very God, King, and Country exhibit. There’s not a single person in the main section of the Gallery (or not that I can think of, at least) who it could be argued doesn’t belong there. We can debate all day and night about who should be there but isn’t, but in terms of the selections the Gallery has made for its permanent collection, it’s stunningly uncontroversial. Thanks for the insight!

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