Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Imagined Lives: portraits of unknown people – exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 3 December 2011 – 22 July 2012.

Just after Christmas, for a winter treat, I went to a tiny exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery called Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People, the idea for which intrigued me very much. The exhibition consisted of 14 portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries that had lost their identities – the people they were originally believed to portray have turned out unlikely to be the subjects after all, and, after 400 years, recovering the attribution is going to be really challenging. I found this idea almost unbearably moving and just had to go and see it, so it gave me the perfect excuse to re-visit the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favourite places in London. (If you’ve never been there, do go – it is full of the most wonderful faces from all periods of history and classes of achievement – and unexpected pleasures, like finding out that Alfred Lord Tennyson when he was young was a total babe.)

The other intriguing element to the experience is that 8 well-known writers have been asked to devise a fictional identity for each, to stand in for the real one while further research continues.

These are just a handful of the thousands of portraits of unknown men, women and children, in galleries and houses all over the country. The fourteen on display here stand in for them, in a way, and are all such lively personalities that I found I could hardly bear to think of the rest of them being forgotten. These portraits have been the subject of research in a project led by Bristol University, and some tentative identifications have been made. I fell in love with this little exhibition, tucked away on a landing off one of the sweeping staircases of the NPG, and I do recommend it.

I dithered over buying the book that goes with the exhibition, containing the fictional identities, but in the end I did so. I wondered if I might find it irritating, and I feared that the writers would strike the wrong note for the period. But I need not have worried about that. The eight pieces are in a variety of styles and genres. Some read like extracts from a lively history textbook, others strike just the right note for one of the short pieces in the Dictionary of National Biography, where the known facts barely stretch to the 500 words allowed. Some are written in the first person, as extracts from letters and journals, where the writer strives to extract the character of the person from their painted image. All in all, I really enjoyed reading these little jeux d’esprit, both for the pleasure of agreeing with them as character descriptions, and for the pleasure of shouting ‘Nooo – that can’t be right! He’s got an honest face!’

The writers are: Alexander McCall Smith, John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters. The life stories are bookended by two pieces that take a rather more fantastical turn than the others – Alexander McCall Smith’s revelation that a sinuously stately 16c lady was Mary Queen of Scots’s body double; and a typically amusing piece by Terry Pratchett identifying a pudding-faced 17c knight with a hapless navigator rejoicing in the wonderful name of Sir Joshua Easement, who, in a permanent state of being lost, found Australia but never told anybody because he didn’t know where he was.

Joanna Trollope and Minette Waters specialise in the first person – letters and diaries – and give a fresh approach to imagining the effect that someone looking at the portrait in the age when it was painted would feel. One letter to a mother speculates on whether the man in the portrait would make a good husband; another (the one that made me cry ‘Noooo!’) by Minette Waters tells us that the subject is a con-man, dressing up in a uniform to which he is not entitled. She knows how to twist a knife in the reader’s ribs, too, as she has her narrator say that the political wind has changed, and the sash of the uniform might have to be painted out – and she must have spotted, as I did, that the finest, most skilful and delicate painting in the whole exhibition was on that sash – paint it out? Noooo!. But what a brilliant touch! However my favourite two pieces are by John Banville – both DNB-length short pieces, written as factual, but with a deliciously nasty tinge, about two men of obscure background and violent end, one a Christopher Marlowe-like diplomatic fixer and spy, swiftly assassinated, and the other a handsome officer in the New Model Army with Rupert Brooke-like spectacular good looks, fatally wounded in battle and painted on his deathbed.

So, even if you cannot get to London to see the exhibition (which, if you get there, is free), the book is well worth getting hold of. It has double value – the ingenious ‘flash fiction’ style imagined lives, and at the end, notes about each painting, its provenance and disputed attribution, and the results of the research that has gone into attempting to give its identity back. It’s a little gem.

Perhaps it is just me – I can get stupidly emotional about the idea that real people survive in portraits and photographs, with their personalities shining through, but no-one knows who they are any more. However, this exhibition shows that there is a future for them. These fourteen people will not be ignored – people will wonder who they were, and what the portraits tell us about their personalities and lives. While I am on the subject, there is a similar source of pleasurable musing to be found in one of my favourite, much more frivolous, websites: My Daguerrotype Boyfriend. I have hitherto tried to draw a veil over why I’ve found this site so fascinating – but this exhibition Imagined Lives has helped me understand the addiction – and now I recommend it to you along with this exhibition and this book. These faces from the past are begging for their story to be told.

John Banville et al. Imagined Lives: portraits of unknown people. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011. Paperback ed. 96pp
ISBN: 9781855144552

12 comments on “Imagined Lives: portraits of unknown people – exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 3 December 2011 – 22 July 2012.

  1. Chris Harding
    January 18, 2012

    Hilary, that’s a lovely review. The exhibition and book sound fascinating (and the information on the NPG website is really well put together). It’s so tempting to create a life from a painting or photograph, and even when you know the person it can give you a completely different view of them. By the way, I see what you mean about My Daguerrotype Boyfriend… the patterned ‘vest’ is very splendid, and the young man wearing it is obviously a bit of a dandy. Reminded me of Dickens, who also liked flashy waistcoats!

  2. Harriet
    January 18, 2012

    Sounds fascinating! Thanks.

  3. Kate Macdonald
    January 18, 2012

    If Pratchett is writing about an imagined person from a picture, that has to be read. I’m definitely going to this exhibition now, thanks so much for telling me!

  4. annebrooke
    January 18, 2012

    This sounds amazing – I must put this on my list. And I love the NPG too – we always go up there whenever we’re in London. Nice cafe as well 🙂 Will definitely try to catch this exhibition – thank you!

    Anne
    xxx

  5. Jackie
    January 18, 2012

    What a great review of what must be a splendid exhibit. Both the paintings & the book of stories would be intriguing & I applaud the creativity involved, by not only the forgotten artists and modern authors, but whomever came up with the idea. I’m so envious that you got to see this exhibit, but thanks for sharing it with us in such a vivid way.

  6. rosyb
    January 19, 2012

    I heard about this on the radio and was fascinated. I’d love to go. Got a deep fondness for the portrait gallery and portraits in general (as long as not just the acres of country house aristos you get in the 18th century

  7. Hilary
    January 19, 2012

    Thanks for the lovely comments, everybody. It is indeed a wonderful idea for an exhibition, and very well carried out. Rosy, I think the period of the portraits (16th-17th centuries) was well chosen, as these all predate that dread period when everyone suddenly started to be painted all exophthalmic and curly haired. They can’t *all* have had thyroid trouble! So some doubt is cast on their likeness to the real person – this has to be a fashion statement.

    However, there are still questions about likeness with earlier portraits too – especially those with a possible part to play in arranging a marriage (think Anne of Cleves), There are a couple in this exhibition that it is speculated have this purpose. Fascinating stuff.

    And the moral of this story is … catalogue all your Sargent portraits, and tag all your photographs, if you don’t want your nearest and dearest to end up on a Tumblr blog, or the subject of flash fiction.

  8. Lisa Glass
    January 21, 2012

    Excellent review of the exhibition and book, Hilary. For me there is this strange mix of euphoria and sadness in looking into the faces of people from past eras. I used to think the sadness came because I was aware I was looking at someone who had lived their life – with all its joy and pain – and was now gone forever, but I’ve come to suspect that this sadness also bubbles up because for a few moments I am startlingly aware of my own mortality, and that always hits like a punch in the nose.

    I’ve been checking out the My Daguerreotype Boyfriend site for a while and find it strangely addictive. It’s very witty and makes me want to go out scouring old pictures for good-looking men. Well, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, I suppose 😉

  9. Hilary
    March 12, 2012

    Alongside the exhibition there is a writing competition, and each month the best alternative imagined lives are posted here:

    http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/display/2011/imagined-lives-portraits-of-unknown-people/imagined-lives-competition.php

    Very enjoyable! I recommend them. And there is one particular portrait that seems to move more writers than any other – a man with doomed good looks, on his deathbed.

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This entry was posted on January 18, 2012 by in Uncategorized.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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