Last night the final episode of Wolf Hall left us in no doubt how terrifying it must have been to live at the court of King Henry VIII. The whole series, like the books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), has been an intriguing observation of power and the manipulation of power. But, unlike other 21st-century historical fictional accounts of the Tudors full of 21st-century people dressed in costumes essentially behaving in a very modern manner, the characters of Wolf Hall evoke another time. Perhaps it is nearer to a true Tudor sensibility. It somehow has a feel as though this re-presentation (hyphen deliberate) floats out from the documents, art and culture surviving from the period.
Last weekend I visited the ‘Real Tudors’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and had the opportunity to scan across six different portraits of Henry VIII as I slowly turned on my heels. Putting the different styles and skills of the various artists aside, we are looking to find the essence of the monarch caught somewhere in the brushstrokes. As I stood and looked and looked, I realised how hard it is to see Henry the human being. The difficulty with these portraits is they are of a royal personage painted at a time when to be royal was to be almost a god. The other issue with these images is that some are copies of an original portrait or even copies of copies long lost in the last 500 years. In the end I considered we will only ever have an extremely mediated view of Henry and as with our contemporary queen, their public face is all about this strange, archaic notion of royalty and nothing to do with an ordinary human sitting for a portrait. I would show you these Henry portraits but, . . .
Wearing my Art Historian’s hat I find I have again to moan about access to public images held by a national art gallery. The National Portrait Gallery does not permit any photographs at all. In fact there are little signs here and there through the galleries reminding us not to take pictures. These images are part of a nation’s heritage and, of course, they are available to see and buy on their website, but that is not the same as taking my own shots.
At least we are still permitted (and we are very, very grateful) to photograph royal palaces from the street. During the period between 1531 and 1536 Henry VIII had St James’s House built (now known as St James’s Palace). The Wolf Hall drama is also partially set during these years and today we can stand in front of the original Tudor gatehouse and imagine Thomas Cromwell riding through these gates perhaps to speak with Anne Boleyn the day after she was crowned queen.
Last night I watched the artist Grayson Perry’s new series ‘Who are you?’ documenting his creative process as he makes portraits. I use the word ‘makes’ instead of the more familiar ‘paints’ as although he starts by sketching the individual first, only one of the finished artworks was a traditional painting. Together with a painted miniature he produced portraits that were a Benin style bronze, a pot and a silk scarf (a hijab). ‘Who are you’ as the title suggests is a series about identity. That is identity as perceived in our 21st-century lives and mediated through visual culture.
It was a fascinating programme as he chatted to and quizzed each sitter in an attempt to understand the multiple layers that they melded together in forming their identity. Grayson commented that when an artist works on a portrait he is part detective and part psychologist in his quest to capture the sitter in a single image. He opines that if successful a portrait “tells you something a 1000 selfies never could”. Now, we have a problem here with the format. I hugely admire Grayson Perry, I think he is a gifted visual interpreter and an extremely intelligent and astute individual, but the moment he as the artist starts to work with a camera crew on his shoulder his subjects begin to morph into a hybrid TV version of themselves. I know we are getting into a philosophical area, but if we are considering the nature of identity then surely we have to acknowledge the effect of being observed. Isn’t one of the points of a selfie that it is a version of you by you at a given moment and not you knowingly mediated by Grayson Perry, by a cameraman, by the TV production company and Channel 4?
Interestingly, the one sitter that was most resistant to revealing any other aspect of himself other than his public image was the disgraced politician, Chris Huhne. I thought that his obviously posed and considered domestic styling contrasted so sentimentally with the roadside cafe shots after his release from prison that it had me reaching for the sick bucket. In his response to Huhne’s incredible self regard, Grayson constructs him as a beautiful, slickly glazed pot. Then in a grand, dramatic televisual moment he purposefully smashes the pot into pieces. The finished portrait is actually the reconstructed pot restored in the Kintsugi tradition where restoration is overtly visible displaying the gold repair/fracture lines. Flawed – need we say more!
Of course, a portrait is acknowledged as a construction of the artist usually in collaboration with the sitter. A multiplicity of choices concerning materials, format, lighting, clothing, setting, pose, full-length etc are considered before the first brush stroke marks the canvas. Additionally, there is the interpretation of self by the sitter whether they are aware or unaware of what they are projecting and then how this is recorded by the artist. Will it be a ‘warts and all’ representation? Any cursory glance at the output of a class of art students all producing a portrait of the same sitter will see as many different versions as there are artists in the class.
We have Grayson’s portraits of his subjects and you can go and see them at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The works will now have a life of their own detached from the television and now installed into a prestigious gallery setting. Identity and portraiture has a long history since the Roman emperors had their ‘heads’ stamped on coins. Our portrait formally rendered as an image of us may capture more than a selfie, but our identity is fluid and even the best portrait does not tell the whole story of our identity.