Grayson Perry at the National Portrait Gallery and a trip to London’s Banqueting House

The Ertegun Scholars made their way to London for yet another cultural outing, this time to visit the Banqueting House and the National Portrait Gallery. We first made a quick stop in Trafalgar Square to take in the sights and sounds. I was surprised to discover that when the National Gallery was completed in the 1830s, the area which today composes the square was actually dug out to artificially raise the building and give it a grander appearance. We then took a short walk down to the Banqueting House on Whitehall. Banqueting House is the only remaining building of Whitehall Palace which burned down in 1698. Designed by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622, it then served as the primary reception hall the sovereign, although it was also the site of the execution of King Charles I in 1649. In addition to its gorgeous Italian Renaissance style architecture, Banqueting House draws visitors who come searching for Peter Paul Rubens’ only surviving ceiling panel, The Apotheosis of James I.

The panel was commissioned by Charles I as a celebration of his father, and Rubens was lured to England with the offer of a knighthood if he agreed to the painting. However, the most wonderful thing about the panel, besides its artwork, was the way Banqueting Hall now chooses to display it. Upon entering the hall, visitors are greeted by an airy hall with bean-bags littered across the floor. Lying on a bean-bag while gazing up at Rubens’ work was a far more enjoyable experience than craning one’s neck, and introduced a much appreciated sense of play and casualness to the whole experience.

The main aim of our London trip however was the visit to the Portrait Gallery with a special tour by Gallery Director Sandy Nairne. Sandy introduced us to the history of the Portrait Gallery, one of only nine in the world. Nestled at the back of the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery seems tiny in comparison, but this did not detract at all from the quality of the works on display, nestled tightly on walls and in corridors. As Sandy explained, the Portrait Gallery opened in 1856 but did not move to its current location until 1896. The very idea of having a portrait gallery grappled with the question of which individuals made British history, and whose stories would be included. Certainly the sovereigns would be included, and so we viewed several examples of royal portraiture, such as the famous portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. Included next to the portrait was Holbein’s draft copy, drawn in ink and watercolor. You can see how Henry’s face was sketched separately, with his clothes and stance having been completed beforehand. One can imagine the King standing by, while Holbein quickly drew him out, with the intent of conveying his actual, lifelike appearance.

This contrasted sharply with portraits done only slightly later, such as those of Elizabeth I. Here we see the portrait was less concerned with her physical appearance than it was with conveying her in a certain light. Sandy called it mask-like, and it’s plain to see that the sense of selfhood and identity were connected with a certain message about the subject of the portrait. The portraits become more symbolic, which is a trend that continues to the modern day.

Grayson Perry’s exhibit “Who Are You?” exemplified this shift from lifelike appearances to the act of narrative. Portraits now are almost entirely symbolic in nature, with a narrative core that highlights the life of the individual. There is still a message, but the message spans across time. Furthermore, artists like Perry represent a conscious break from the older tradition which privileged the “sitters” and gave in too much to them. Now, portraits are performance pieces which say just as much about the artist as they do the subject. Perry’s piece “The Ashford Hijab” for instance tells the story of Kayleigh Khosravi’s conversion to Islam and her family’s attempts to flee the “temple of consumerism.” Such works seemed to speak to me more than any of other pieces on display that day in the Portrait Gallery. This is perhaps because they embody elements of the modern day which I can personally relate to on a deeper level than the pristine portraiture of the Victorian Era. Or perhaps it is because, as an historian, I study things as they change and the idea of a portrait capturing the essence of a single moment in time seems too sterile. We do experience our lives as a narrative, and so it is only natural that our artwork conveys this notion as well.

Maryam Patton