Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

28 March 2010

Detail from The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche. Photo: National Gallery, London.

On Friday morning I went to see the Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey exhibition at the National Gallery in London. I was feeling a bit fragile after the previous evening’s revelries so didn’t enjoy it as much as perhaps I would otherwise have done but I still really liked it.

Detail from The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Photo: National Gallery, London.

Situated in the bowels of the Sainsbury Gallery and displayed against black curtains and sombre slate grey walls, the exhibition is actually quite a small one, although it feels bigger probably because of the hugely dramatic and punchy impact of the works on display. As well as showing off Delaroche’s masterpiece, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, there is also La Jeune Martyre and The Princes in the Tower, both on loan from the Louvre as well as his moving painting of Marie Antoinette leaving the Tribunal after her sentencing.

Marie-Antoinette au Tribunal révolutionnaire, Alphonse Francois after Paul Delaroche, 1857.

As well as paintings, there are several preparation drawings and sketches hanging on the walls, showing the thought process that went into the painting of Lady Jane Grey and revealing Delaroche’s twin preoccupations with the French Revolution and English history, with his interest in one giving rise to his dramatic evocations of the other. Alongside his drawings of Lady Jane Grey’s execution, there were sketches of the Dauphin and Madame Royale in the Temple prison, clutching each other in the same way as the Princes in the Tower, while presumably an unseen menace lingered beyond the cell door.

King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London, Paul Delaroche, 1831. Photo: Musée Louvre.

It is the painting of Lady Jane Grey that is the real jewel here – her youthful beauty luminous and radiant as she prepares for death. It is displayed alone against a stark wall, and up close the eye is free to linger on the shimmering white silk of her gown, the berefit expressions of her ladies in waiting, the rich brocade and jewels on her discarded dress that one of them clutches on her lap and the serious and intense way that the gazes of both of the men, the Lieutenant of the Tower and the executioner are turned upon her. There can be no doubt at all that we are in the presence of martyrdom – the scene is wholly secular, but nonetheless the painting owes as much to depictions of religious martyrdom as it does to the dark drama of history.

Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, Edouard Cibot, 1835. Photo: Musée Rolin.

Also on display is another favourite work: Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Edouard Cibot, which I don’t recall ever seeing in person before. The 1835 painting with its limp central figures, the contrast of a pale shimmering gown and rich brocades and Anne Boleyn’s (inaccurate) dishevilled red plaits obviously owes a great deal to Delaroche’s painting of Lady Jane, which was completed two years earlier. It’s a powerful work in its own right though and it was a pleasure to see it there.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche. Photo: National Gallery, London.

The exhibition is running at the National Gallery until the 23rd May 2010 and is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity. I got around it in about 40 minutes, so I wouldn’t plan a whole day out around it though.

I’ve also written about this exhibition here.

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