Simon Schama's Exhibition Blends History And Portraiture

Simon Schama's Face Of Britain ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 104 months ago

Last Updated 25 September 2015

Simon Schama's Exhibition Blends History And Portraiture Simon Schama's Face Of Britain 3
The painter Graham Sutherland and Winston Churchill repeatedly clashed in the creation of this painting. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery.

Simon Schama is a respected historian but with this exhibition he's taken a step into the art world, working with the National Portrait Gallery curators to put on an eclectic show centred around several different themes.

It's bizarrely laid out in five rooms across three floors of the gallery, giving the exhibition a dissonance that could have been easily avoided by placing the related themed rooms next to each other — when trekking through the gallery we did wonder whether every visitor would actually visit every room.

The first room is about people and it's the stories in this room — from photographs of mixed race couples in Notting Hill to a laughing audience by Hogarth — that ensures visitors remain interested, rather than the works themselves. Next we move onto the theme of power which just so happens to be the strongest part of the exhibition, with stories of how both Churchill and Thatcher unsurprisingly proved to be difficult sitters for their portraits. We particularly liked side by side paintings of a fully-armoured Oliver Cromwell and a depiction of Charles I as a martyr.

We then have some great stories in a room entitled Love before being let down by the Fame room where mediocre portraits simply remind us of popular historical figures like Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake.

The final room deals with the self and features the most contemporary works, though the self-portraits by big names like Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach are not their best works. The permanent installation of Marc Quinn's head sculpted from his own blood is easily the strongest work in this final room.

The exhibition as a whole varies in the quality of the paintings on display and not all of the associated narratives gripped us. However having the two facets of this show does work as sometimes visitors will be hooked into the narrative surrounding the work, while at other times they will simply stand and enjoy some of the higher quality works on display.

Simon Schama's Face of Britain is on at National Portrait Gallery until 4 January 2016. Entrance to this exhibition and the permanent collection is free. Also still on at the gallery is the popular Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon.

Nearby is the Political Art of Ai Weiwei, a macabre procession by William Kentridge and the nocturnal Night Shift. We'd also recommend the World Goes Pop and our top picks this autumn and September.