Caroline Bugler is intrigued by a new museum display, book and television series that delve into the essence of British portraiture.

When the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) was founded in 1856, it was intended to present the public with a parade of the heroes of British history ‘as warriors or statesmen, or in the arts, in literature or in science’. The collection was meant to be both celebratory and exemplary, chiming with the opinion of Thomas Carlyle, an early trustee, who believed that seeing the images of great men was key to understanding the past, as portraits were worth ‘half-a-dozen written biographies’.

However, Carlyle’s view of history came under literal attack in 1914, when suffragette Margaret Gibb took a meat cleaver to his portrait in the gallery in protest against a male-dominated society that denied women the vote.

Attitudes to history change constantly, just like portraiture itself; we now live in an age of selfies, Snapchat and Facebook. But ephemeral digital images lack the rich complexity of meaning contained in the painted, drawn, engraved and printed portraits brilliantly analysed by Simon Schama in a new display at the NPG and an accompanying book and television series.

The trail through the gallery, which takes in British portraits from the Renaissance to the present day, aims to provide new insights into the collection by arranging the works thematically rather than chronologically, grouping them under five headings: Power, Love, Fame, People and Self.

Taken together, the display, book and programmes examine how and why each portrait came into being whether it was made to promote a public image, to retain the presence of a lost love or court a new one, to record the socially marginalised or as part of a self-examination project.

Every portrait has its own backstory. Who would have guessed, for example, that William Wilberforce’s benign inclination towards the viewer in Thomas Lawrence’s unfinished portrait of him was due to a crippling condition that caused his spine to curve and his head to loll?

Or that Churchill’s pugnacious expression in Karsh’s 1941 bromide print was because the photographer had the temerity to remove a cigar from his subject’s lips moments before closing the camera shutter? It was lucky for Karsh that Churchill approved of this version of himself, because he greeted the one that Graham Sutherland painted in 1954 with scorn.

The poor artist had to cope with the weight of expectations that came with an important commission to paint Britain’s wartime hero on his 80th birthday and suffer the humiliation of having his sitter publicly reject it, grumbling that it made him look half-witted. As the portrait was consigned to the bonfire by Churchill’s private secretary, all we have left to judge it by are the studies, which reveal it to have been a tour de force.

But how literally truthful can a portrait of a national icon be? Sutherland didn’t shy away from what he saw in front of him and Oliver Cromwell may have wanted to be painted with his famous warts, but the powerful (and not so powerful) have usually preferred to present posterity with an improved image of themselves.

This is especially true of royalty. On display is an engraving after Holbein of Henry VIII and his family, showing the king in defiantly masculine stance, impossibly broad-shouldered with his hands on his hips, his codpiece thrust forward. His daughter, Elizabeth I, was a consummate manufacturer of her own brand: she handed out approved likenesses of herself to loyal supporters and appropriated iconography previously reserved for the Virgin Mary for her official portraits.

The Face of Britain at the National Portrait Gallery

Dame Laura Knight’s self portrait (1913) shows the artist at work.

George IV was also in the habit of dispatching flattering miniatures of himself as billets doux to the objects of his amorous pursuit. One by Richard Cosway portrays him in a dashing red coat and hat set at a rakish angle, with lustrous eyes and pouting red lips a romantic hero rather than a reprobate inclined to fat.

Fortunately, the British taste for satire and caricature has, for centuries, managed to deflate the pomposity and self-importance of rulers and governments. Thus James Gillray, who produced an official image of the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger in 1789, transformed the features of his sitter in
a cartoon he produced two years later into a gigantic fungus atop a dunghill.

Of course, you don’t have to be a monarch or politician, warrior or naval hero to be a national icon. The display includes a fair sprinkling of ‘celebrity’ images, reflecting the important part that artists have played in creating fame. On show is Nathaniel Hone’s portrait of Kitty Fisher, a courtesan who artfully cultivated her own superstar status, and Emma Hamilton, who had it manufactured for her by George Romney.

The talents of actors and actresses such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons were also immortalised by portraitists, as was the notoriety of the murderess Sarah Malcolm, painted by Hogarth in her cell at Newgate as she awaited execution. The resulting print, circulated cheaply in taverns, satisfied a public taste for sensation, just as tabloid photographs do today.

There is something intensely revealing about self-portraiture, which allows artists the freedom to create their own image and to stare back at us. But in two of the most arresting on display, the artist averts her gaze from the spectator. Dame Laura Knight shows herself from behind, her face in profile, as she stands in front of her easel painting the naked woman in front of her. How different this is from Tracey Emin’s photographic self-portrait, in which the artist herself has become the naked subject, crouching in a Margate beach hut.

Simon Schama’s ‘The Face of Britain’ is at the National Portrait Gallery from September 16 to January 4, 2016 (020–7306 0055; ‘The Face of Britain’ by Simon Schama is published by Viking/Penguin Random House on September 16, price £30. The five-part BBC2 series ‘Simon Schama’s The Face of Britain’ will be broadcast this autumn