Faces of the Historic Elite
For years, going to London, I avoided the National Portrait Gallery. What could be more gloomy, I thought, than long, dark galleries of uniform-size pictures of kings and prime ministers? Friends dragged us into the place, when we were stopping over on the way to hear the IOC announce our Olympic bid in 1993. It was nothing like my image of the place. My interest in the institution has grown steadily.
Two visits in the last few days persade me to lodge it in my register of sacred sites.
It was the Tudor and Stuart galleries that did it.
In the long Elizabethan room they face one another, the characters in this drama, this story of a piratical, entrepreneurial, word-drunk era that launched the English genius. The Elizabethans. First, the monarch herself: a coronation portrait from 1555 is just about Byzantine in its flatness and formality and the Amarda portrait of 1588 is touched up with maritime symbolism. But the so-called Darnley portrait of the 1570s was done from life and has the ring of truth for us. But how the English lagged in painting – even after Holbein arrived to teach them. Imagine how a Titian would have treated the character of this Queen. Of course, the English genius was reflected in the word, not the picture. Shakespeare,the King James Version – a people of the word, not the image.
In the room with her are more than half a dozen of her favorites, her courtiers posing with costume and jewelry designed to show off their loyalty. Fascinating histories. The Earl of Southampton, for example, was flattered by Shakespeare who dedicated the long poem Venus and Adonis to him but he became involved in the Essex revolt against the old queen and was imprisoned; but he was released by James 1 after he succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. There is Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the most famous and influential favorite, dressed in feathers, satin and silk, decked out for the chivalric rituals. Sir Walter Raleigh, presented in a portrait as a loyal subject, was in and out of her favors and – with a different career trajectory than Southampton’s – was executed under James 1 for attacking the Spaniards without permission.
Sir Philip Sidney – diplomat, soldier and poet, Renaissance figure – is here, plus the formidable advisers to the crown: Lord Burgley or Robert Cecil, always by her side, and her J Edgar Hoover, Sir Francis Walsingham who ran networks of spies to subvert Popish plots against his Queen.
Maybe like the mannequins of US presidents in the basement of the museum in Gore Vidal’s novel, The Smithsonian Institution, they come to life at night and resume arguments about the Spanish, the Puritan challenge to the Anglican settlement, the troubles of the royal treasury.
Around the corner one comes face to face with the person we all would give our right arms to meet: Shakespeare, the Chandos portrait, the only one believed to be from life. The first painting acquired by the gallery. And sort of over his shoulder, an elegant full-length portrait of Charles 1 in gray-brown satin. Here with the Jacobeans we are introduced to personalities easy to overlook such as the eldest son of James 1, Henry Prince of Wales, who died young and James’ daughter Elizabeth who became Queen of Bohemia by marriage, was forced out by the Catholic League and lived in exile in Holland esteemed for her beauty and suffering as “the Winter Queen”.
Earlier in the Gate theatre, above a pub in Notting Hill, we saw an actor Hilton McRae, deliver a dramatic monologue. He played a man in a rail carriage in Tsarist Russia of the 1880s. He looked the audience in the eye and talked about a tense marriage – morbidly tense – that resulted in him murdering his wife and being acquitted because of her adultery. It is Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, a sour, misogynistic fantasy. And the central character, the monologist, is, as described by Michael Billington in The Guardian, “a Strindbergian maniac”. I like that, “Strindbergian maniac”.
Room for 50 people in the space, another intimate performance space. Only one speaking role, with a male violinist and female pianist providing the music, miming the role of wife and her lover behind a transparent screen. It was powerful. But a few days later at another of these tiny pub theatres, this one in Camden Road, an attempt to dramatize Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, directed by Vladimir Sobchak, was amateur standard, an agony to listen to and watch, and once again we cut our losses and beat a retreat at interval.
And so, home. The surf at Maroubra – I can almost taste it in my nostrils.
When there’s time I need to report on my reading: Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy and Gogol’s Dead Souls. A touch of the European appetite for the absurd. And read, the second one, on an e-reader, the first time I’ve embarked on this apostasy.