The canvas and the camera

NPG 4691; King Charles II attributed to Thomas Hawker

I was in London for a couple of days last week, and I managed to achieve a lifelong ambition. I went to the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a wonderful place, packed with paintings of the great and good. It’s fascinating ferret out the secret meanings and assumptions that lie beneath them. There’s a portrait of Sir Francis Drake which is grossly out of proportion – he’s 95% body and 5% head. In fact the painter wanted to show off the silk and lace clothes that he was wearing, and didn’t worry too much about his facial features. It’s quite possible that Sir Francis had a body double for the frills and furbelows and only came to sit for the headshot.

But there was one painting which really stood out from the rest. It was the portrait of Charles 11 at the top of this post.I know it reaches new depths of lo-finess – but I wanted you to have some idea of what he looks like.

The painting is about power, and the meaning is conveyed in two ways. First of all there’s the clothing- rich silks and brocades gleaming and glittering. I wonder if he could have walked around with all that stuff draped over his shoulder.

And then there’s the physical posture and the face. King Charles looks like a man of power. He’s sprawled in the throne of England, legs akimbo. He really owns the space. But it’s his face ( and that’s where the poor reproduction makes things tricky)- it’s his face which gives it all away.I’ve never seen such a powerful portrait of anger. His brows are drawn together, there’s a sneer reaching down to the corners of his mouth. He doesn’t want to be there at all- he wants to be founding the Royal Society or having it away with one of his mistresses. There is a terrific immediacy in this painting, a capturing of one moment in time.

Except it didn’t happen this way. The creation of the picture must have taken weeks. Day after day Charles made himself the puppet of the painter, putting his limbs into the right position.This portrait, like all portraits, is a fake. It has the pretence of immediacy, but it also has a depth that could only be captured over a period of time. The finished painting is an account of the relationship between Charles and his portraitist at the time it was created.

What about photographs, then ? Photographs have immediacy, right enough. They can capture a scene which existed for 1000th of a second. But they say little about the subject and everything about the photographer. Photographs capture a moment of light on skin, nothing less, and maybe nothing more.

I’m not saying that portraiture is in any way better than photography. I would claim that it has more depth. A painted portrait is an account of a relationship; a photograph captures a moment in time, where the subject is often caught unawares. Painters paint..yes.. and what do photographers do ? They shoot.


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