Anthony Smith explains how he came to appreciate portraits from the 18th and 19th centuries and the stories behind them
Anthony casts his expert eye over a new topic
Aconfession; I really don’t like all artworks. Some leave me cold, while others I simply can’t understand or come to terms with.
One area that was part of this group for me was 18th century portraiture. It simply disinterested me; so much so that I bypassed it whenever I was in a public gallery.
However a few years back, my wife was speaking about a portrait she saw in the National Gallery that caused me to completely rethink my bias. Maureen was discussing not just the painting itself, but more the details regarding the sitter and her life. I had never even taken the time to read the descriptions, a shameful admission I know.
Our discussion led me to view the work and others as soon as I could. On returning to the gallery, I spent time just reading about the sitters’ lives as much as looking at the art.
In some cases, these were amazingly rich and interesting lives, whilst in other cases they were lives of privilege and comfort and for others, sadly not.
The beauty of some of the sitters stood out, their perfect skin and dress was simply stunning. But it was the lives of these people, their social standing, position and stories that touched me more and fascinated me.
I looked at each portrait with keen interest, not just artistically, but in terms of social history. Each portrait pulled me deeper and deeper into their world.
Then my interest was sparked in 19th century portraiture, so much so that my now frequent visits to the National Portrait Gallery allow me to ‘visit’ my great, great, great grandfather regularly, a visit I look forward to as he reminds me so much of my mother.
My fascination was further sparked when I viewed portraits of people who we know nothing about, in some cases highly competent works where even the artist is unknown. I would never definitively know about them, but my imagination ran wild when I imagined their personality, the family and the social setting that these ‘anonymous’ sitters regarded as their everyday… their world.
There is a lovely portrait that falls into this category here in the Norwich Castle collection simply titled Mrs Turner.
Here we meet Mrs Turner, a middle-aged woman, one who has wealth as evidenced by the fact she has had her portrait painted and by the pearl necklace and ornamental drop earrings. Neither would we expect to see on a woman without some wealth and position. She was also quite plump as evidenced by her double chin and full cheeks, so she ate well!
She does not have a classically beautiful face, but rather a face showing her years and life. But it’s her eyes that capture me, slightly tired but kind. We really don’t know anything about her, but she looks out at us from across two centuries and we are touched by a certain humanity in this work. This, for me, is the magic in these portraits… in all portraits.
This month do visit Norwich Castle for ‘Viking. Rediscover the legend’ opening on February 7. This promises to be a fabulous exhibition with works from the British Museum and York Museum’s Trust. [email protected]
‘It’s her eyes that capture me: slightly tired but kind. We really don’t know anything about her, but she looks out at us from across two centuries and we are touched by a certain humanity in this work’