The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Le Sueur had helped complete the sculpture for the Pont Neuf and, evidently, he wanted to make something as imposing for Charles I, who, like his father, James I, had styled himself King of ‘Magna Britannia’ – Great Britain. When Inigo Jones, James’s master builder, came through Paris and suggested that Le Sueur (a Protestant) travel to England, the sculptor crossed the Channel, arriving in 1625, the same year as Charles’s French Queen, Henrietta Maria, a time when London artists were still overwhelmingly a foreign colony: Flemings, Dutchmen, Italians and a few French. Under Elizabeth, there had been little call for monumental sculpture, but the Stuarts, with their grandly European taste, changed that. Le Sueur was hired to produce frieze figures for the bier of James I, designed by Jones, and for the late King’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. Charles, an avid collector and connoisseur, wanted his own copies of famous classical statuary – the Spinario of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot and the recently excavated Gladiator (actually a swordsman) in the Borghese collection, so Le Sueur was sent to Rome to take moulds from which casts could be made back in England.

This book is about pictures in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery, attached to a BBC series which I didn’t see. I have come to appreciating art rather late in life, and perhaps as a result I really enjoyed this look at the history and culture of portraiture. Every chapter is a nicely shaped story about a particular artist or group of artists, or occasionally about their subjects – the section on Emma Hamilton is a real eye-opener if all you know about her is her romance with Nelson. It’s a big book – 600 pages before you get the the end notes – but well illustrated and well worth it.

It’s always great to find new artists to enjoy, and my particular discoveries here were Gwen John, who I had at least heard of before, and Laura Knight, who I’m ashamed to say was a new name to me. This in itself says something about my previous encounters with art – she is not a minor figure, and lived to be 93, and I see that the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester has 13 of her works but I failed to notice any of them when I was there. Her Self-Portrait with Nude is absolutely stunning.

I learned a lot from this very entertaining book. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is The Race, by Nina Allan.