Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

11 January 2010

No other painting in London’s National Gallery exerts such a level of fascination as Delaroche’s superb depiction of the execution of Lady Jane Grey. It hangs close to the main entrance and you can guarantee that whenever you walk into the gallery, there will always be at least a small crowd of people standing in front of it, their heads slightly to one side as they contemplate it in total silence.

It’s exciting therefore that there is to be an exhibition about the painting at the National Gallery, London from the 24th February 2010 to the 23rd May, where it will be on display alongside other examples of Delaroche’s work, including the recently rediscovered Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is Delaroche’s best known work and may well be his masterpiece. It was painted in 1833 and then sunk from view until its sudden rediscovery in 1973 and arrival at the National Gallery two years later. We can only imagine the effect that it had when it was first unveiled at the Paris salon of 1834, at a time when history painting was at its most popular.

The execution of a relatively obscure English Queen may seem like unlikely material for a French artist to approach, however it makes perfect sense when you find out that Delaroche was fascinated by the relatively recent events of the French Revolution but often sought out parallels instead of directly depicting them – a wise course at a time of continued upheaval in France.

It’s likely that Delaroche’s interest in Lady Jane’s tragic story was inflamed during a visit to England in 1830 when he went to the Tower of London to research his famous painting of the Princes in the Tower, which in its turn is a parallel to the fate of the unfortunate Dauphin of France in the Temple prison.

Delaroche was fascinated by the themes of martyrdom and execution, particularly in relation to royal figures such as Lady Jane and Charles I and it is likely that he found Lady Jane’s saintly forbearance and dignity upon the scaffold comparable to that of Marie Antoinette. Certainly, the doomed French Queen was on his mind as he worked on his composition as sketches of the Dauphin and Madame Royale appear alongside his preparatory drawings for Lady Jane Grey in his notebooks.

Also evident in the painting is Delaroche’s interest in theatre and the dramatic arts: the scaffold appears more like a stage in the painting with the narrow confines of the composition reminding the viewer of the confined tableaux of religious passion plays. It is fitting therefore that Delaroche’s mistress, the actress Mademoiselle Anaïs is said to have posed for the figure of Lady Jane.

If you can’t get to the exhibition then there is also a very sumptuous looking catalogue to accompany it, which is available now for pre-order from Amazon.