Issue Number: 92
Head to Head
From Holbein to Hockney, portraiture remains close to the heart of British culture, argues Simon Wilson
William Hogarth despised portrait painting as mere ‘phiz mongering’. Thomas Gainsborough famously wrote, ‘I am sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet village where I can paint landskips.’ Yet both in their very different ways produced portraits that are among the greatest in the history of the genre in Britain. And what a history that is. It begins with Hans Holbein at the court of Henry VIII, continues under Elizabeth I with Nicholas Hilliard, the first native-born genius of British art, reaches some kind of impossible peak of romantic glamour with Van Dyck, is given a new humanity and realism by Hogarth, and arrives at a climax in the twin talents of Gainsborough and Reynolds, the one the supreme painter of the beautiful and gifted, especially women, the other the supreme recorder of power, position and wealth.
What these names reveal is that for the two-and-a-half centuries they cover, portraiture was the dominant form of painting in Britain. For native painters, however, there were problems. When Henry VIII imported Holbein, a German, he was simply doing what we do today when we want a new car. Holbein’s Vorsprung had made him leader of the northern European art pack and his Technik was cutting edge. When Charles I bribed first Rubens and then Van Dyck to work for him in London, he too did so because the home market could not remotely deliver. British connoisseurs from Henry VIII onwards bought their major art works – subject pictures and landscapes, at source – from Italy, the Netherlands, France and Spain. But portraits were more conveniently done at home and there was a huge demand – for images of the patron, his house, his land, his horse, his hound, his mistress, his wife, his children (probably in roughly that order).
This had some interesting and quirky results. First of all, even native British portraitists eventually became rather good at it – hence Gainsborough and Reynolds (in spite of the latter’s unreliable Technik). The country house portrait (the house in its park) ultimately gave us Turner and Constable. The horse and hound portrait gave us the incomparable animal painter Stubbs, together with the rich genre of sporting painting that records, inter alia, the peculiarly British love of the ritual slaughter of wildlife in technically complicated and socially elaborate ways, celebrated in orgiastic festivities (hunt balls).
British portraiture cruised through the nineteenth century. Then, oddly perhaps, with the advent of modernism, things got interesting again. For Whistler, the sitter was simply the pretext for a beautiful painting. His friend and enemy Oscar Wilde coined the epigram, ‘One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art’; painted by Whistler you achieved both, since he often designed your dress as well as redesigning you. Since then, the British portrait has seen continued vitality. Modern frankness about the body has given us Stanley Spencer’s iconic nude self-portraits with his second wife. Lucian Freud reinvented the vanitas (the still life with symbolism of mortality) to give us the body itself, in entropy, ageing before our eyes, necrophiliac and post-coital, as memento mori. Francis Bacon gave us the existentialist portrait, and Tom Phillips, in another reinvention of tradition, the conceptual portrait, such as the National Portrait Gallery’s Sir Peter Hall.
Hans Holbein, Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c.1526-28
One of the great shocks of British art in my lifetime was in the mid-1960s, at the height of modernism’s somewhat belated grip on British art. David Hockney, darling of the avant-garde, suddenly abandoned his early, modernist style. He not only went figurative (eek!), but began to paint portraits (argh!). Now, thanks to a major new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, we can see what a remarkable extension of a central British tradition these really are. Furthermore, the show coincides with a full-scale survey at Tate Britain of Holbein’s English portraits. So we have the alpha and omega (to date) of British portraiture. It’s a fascinating combination, but Holbein is compulsory – not least because the last comparable show was in 1950 (at the RA of course) and as many years will likely pass before the next. Incidentally, ‘Holbein in England’ includes the National Gallery’s enchanting Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (above). It was acquired in 1992 for £10 million, a price heavily criticised at the time as exorbitant. It would be five times that today – and still worth every penny.
The NPG is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary and it is flourishing as never before. This vigour, these two exhibitions and the success of the NPG’s annual BP Portrait Awards, confirm the place that the portrait continues to occupy both in the heart of British culture and in the affections of the public.
Holbein in England, Tate Britain, London (020 7887 8888), 28 Sep–7 Jan; David Hockney: Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London (020 7306 0055), 12 Oct–21 Jan
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615