The limits of relevance

The historical portrait is a great way to understand our legacy. Don’t consign it to the back room.

Sir William Sidney Smith, by John Eckstein, oil on canvas, 1801-02, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Although the subject is a real event, the sitter is revealed as a theatrical, egotistical, and rather absurd character. But he was a star in his day.

One of my favorite museums is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London. That’s not because its collection is stellar—it’s piddling compared to the nearby National Gallery. It tells the story of Britain through art, and I love history.

There’s so much you can learn from portraits—the manners and mores of the times, the sitters’ blind spots and where they had to be flattered. Portraits, particularly painted ones, are romantic in a way that photographs are not. And then there’s simple curiosity. What did Thomas Cranmer, Admiral Nelson or Florence Nightingale really look like?
Among the paintings on display when I visited the NPG were the portraits of Iroquois chieftains—Joseph Brant, Red Jacket, Cornplanter and Governor Blacksnake. The Iroquois Confederacy played important roles in both the Revolution and the French and Indian War, as full allies of the British. Joseph Brant was once important enough to have been painted by court painter George Romney in London and Gilbert Stuart here.
Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’), c. 1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Elizabeth stands astride the globe, but the portrait’s symbolic theme is her forgiveness of Henry Lee for retiring from court.
The NPG is suffering from falling visitation, dropping from 1,703,411 in 2017 to 1,586,451 visitors in 2018. As bad as that sounds, it understates the problem. Visits are down more than 25% from the 2.1 million visitors they recorded in 2015/16. Then, management blamed the drop on a counting error by an external company.
Now critics suggest that the current decline may be due to director Nicholas Cullinan’s pursuit of diversity. “If the implication of this criticism is that we and other museums should not programme contemporary artists (which in our case happen to be mostly women) and only feature well-known names, I think we have a problem with metrics that focus on quantity alone.”
That’s a bit of a red herring. Britons have a long and sometimes mystifying affection for contemporary art. In fact, Tate Modern is the UK’s biggest visitor attraction.
The Slave Gang, c. 1900, by unknown artist, glass magic lantern plate, published by The London Missionary Society, courtesy National Portrait Gallery.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that people come to the NPG for the contemporary portraits. They come to see the Chandos William Shakespeare, exquisite Elizabethan miniatures, or ponder the sad story of Lady Jane Grey. The NPG’s charm lies in its antique fustiness. It’s the thinking tourist’s Tower of London experience.
The portrait gallery can only be as diverse as the society it represents, which in much of Britain’s history meant white people painted by men. Today British society is more plural, but it’s also glutted with imagery. Nobody needs to go to the NPG to see what the Prime Minister look like—her photo is everywhere. Nobody needs to go there to look at the British Everyman, either, since he’s just down the street.
Winston Churchill, 1916, by Sir William Orpen, courtesy National Portrait Gallery. Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty after the disaster at Gallipoli, which claimed 46,000 allied lives. His reputation was ruined, albeit temporarily. This portrait was painted at the lowest point in Churchill’s career.
Emphasizing diversity can be a way of saying, “Look how backwards our ancestors were.” England was, from the 16th century to the 20th, an empire. Empires are by nature diverse. Those Iroquois leaders in a museum dedicated to British subjects were one example. So are 31 different maharajas represented in more than 200 portraits. Or the two great empire-building British rulers, Elizabeth I and Victoria, and the longest-reigning British monarch, Elizabeth II. There’s plenty of diversity in British history once you stop pigeonholing what diversity means.

The light in the Dark Ages

While Europe floundered, the British Isles continued to create great art.
The Chi-Rho monogram from the Book of Kells, courtesy of Trinity College Library, Dublin
If you went to school back in the last millennium, you learned that western civilization fell off a precipice with the Sack of Rome. What followed were centuries of Germanic tribes overrunning, displacing and reshaping the former Roman Empire. This was the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of a long period of unrest.
International trade and social ties across Europe collapsed rapidly. The many Roman industries that required cooperation and transportation ended. These included pottery, glass, olives, wine, African grain, Chinese silk, Indian spices and much more. Systematic agriculture vanished, along with most organized education. The military posts that had created cultured society on the outposts of Empire were gone.
We have ways of estimating the impact of these changes. One is population decline. In formerly-Roman Europe, there was a population drop of about one-third between 150 and 600 AD. Then came a series of plagues that knocked off another half of the population.
Ancient shipping is measured in shipwrecks. They fell off abruptly after the fall of Rome. Europe was extensively reforested as farming declined.
The Great Buckle from Sutton Hoo, courtesy of the British Museum
Britain always stood uneasily on the rim of the Roman Empire. It had less to lose. While the rest of Europe was floundering, “Britain lead the world in areas such as poetry, medicine, and organisation of land and taxes,” according to Dr. Claire Breay. She curated Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Words, War, now at the British Library. If I were in a mood to travel, I’d go.
Almost a thousand books written or owned in Medieval England have survived. These include the Domesday Book, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a hymn by England’s first poet, Cædmon, and the epic poem, Beowulf. In addition, written law codes, wills, and account books show a people who could, at minimum, keep their own affairs in order.
Th’ owd Man is an Anglo-Saxon carving in St Mary’s Church, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. It is the oldest-known depiction of a miner. Courtesy
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not convert to Christianity until the late 6th century. The missionary Augustine was invited by Bertha, the wife of King Æthelberht of Kent. Bertha was literate enough to exchange letters with Pope Gregory the Great. She had the influence to bring about the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.
Christianity sparked a new literacy in Britain, both in English and Latin. At the forefront were abbesses, women of high status who presided over double monasterieswhere both men and women served. These were the major cultural, economic, and intellectual centers of their day. Anglo-Saxon women could inherit and bequeath property. Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, ruled Mercia in her own right, kicked the Vikings out of Mercia, and defended and fortified her cities. According to researcher Christine Fell, women were “near equal companions to the males in their lives, such as husbands and brothers, much more than in any other era before modern time.”
Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) was the most famous abbess of her day, a wise woman consulted by kings.  
We know Anglo-Saxon art mainly from manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest existing copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Christianity discouraged the burial of grave goods but their pagan predecessors had no such scruples. Both groups left a tremendous legacy of metalwork, textiles, ivory carvings, wall paintings, and monuments.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a massive embroidered wall-hanging commemorating the Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest. It was designed and executed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists.
And then, in 1066 AD, it suddenly ended. The Norman Conquestmeant a massive plundering of the churches and courts by the new ruling class. They had little interest in the arts. Eventually, the Norman influence would create a new art—perhaps the greatest in British history—but for the moment, the light of the so-called Dark Ages was snuffed out.