The face of Britain by Simon Schama
Simon Schama is an experienced career historian, with a special interest in art history. This volume, accompanying the BBC series of the same name, is a long discursive treatise on how to understand and interpret the history of a nation through portraiture.
It is as much a study of the relationships between sitters and their artists, as it is of the characters of the subjects themselves. Every painting has a context, and every context has a past history of events and people that lead up to the moment of the portrait being done. We learn about the intentions of the sitters and how they melded, or not, with the intentions of the artist. The portrait, ultimately, had everything to do with the immortality of the sitter, and the legacy of a life lived.
From the ‘warts and all’ representation of Oliver Cromwell to the stately majesty of Elizabeth I, every portrait tells its own story. And the story told by Graham Sutherland’s fateful portrait of Winston Churchill, destined to be hung in Parliament for future generations, was so grotesque to the sitter himself, that it ended up on a bonfire in the garden of Chartwell. It was just too curmudgeon for the likes of many.