In with a chance to become the fourth Queen of England, Anne of Cleves could have saved herself a whole heap of bother had Facebook existed in her day.
For starters she could have cut out the middleman artist, posted her own selfie and just sat back and waited for King Henry VIII to take one of three possible actions: click like, make a comment such as “LOL”, or unfriend her on the spot (today’s equivalent of beheading).
But no, in the 16th century you had to go and get your portrait painted. Pity the poor artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, caught between his plain subject, an out of control King and a punishing time frame.
But Henry was quite taken with the portrait. It was Anne of Cleves herself whom he loathed on sight. Referring to her as ‘that Flanders mare’, he is reputed to have claimed she did not look English enough. And if you want to know what that means, read The English Face – which Oscar Wilde dismissed in just four words (the face that is, not the book):
Once seen, never remembered
The Royal marriage was never consummated and was finally annulled. But the portrait lives on, as portraits tend to do.
You may even be tempted to paint a self portrait. Be warned though that nothing will drive you to substance abuse faster than attempting to make a painting of yourself, cutting as it does to the core of the disparity between how you think you look and what the rest of the world may actually be seeing.
I’ve just discovered the New Zealand Portrait Gallery website and, during a quick browse around, this lovely portrait of the writer and scholar Dame Joan Metge caught my eye. To me it is a wonderful portrait revealing a beautifully aged face full of expression and wisdom. I love portraits both painted and photographed. And libraries are great places for wonderful books full of portraiture.
A teenage job saw me working at the National Library in Wellington and one of the joys of the job for me was the discovery of a treasure trove of photography books full of wonderful portraits. I would sit on the stairs poring over them. This love has continued and some interesting New Zealand books of portraits include:
Hounded by authorities because of taxes, left-leaning politics and a liking for young ladies, the once adored comic Charlie Chaplin split the United States in 1952. On his last day in the country, he finally consented to his portrait being taken by the noted fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Avedon had been keen to take Chaplin’s photo for many years, but the actor continually declined. After a full day’s shooting, Chaplin gave Avedon the perfect, spontaneous photo. Head down, fingers aside his head like devil horns, he grins at the camera. It’s an unforgettable image, both humourous and political. Chaplin’s goodbye to the States is one of the most memorable in Performance, a new collection of Avedon portraits. The subjects are all leading performance artists, and while you may recognise the names, many of these images have never been published before. Avedon had an ability to really capture the vitality of his subjects, and these photographs all possess a charming lack of inhibition.
The Avedon book has really fancy packaging and will look great laying on your coffee table for a couple of weeks. Indeed, big, glossy photography books abound at the moment. The other one I’m poring over is Vanity Fair the portraits : a century of iconic images. Vanity Fair has a well established reputation as a stylish chronicle of society, so this celebration of their most famous sitters was always going to be good. Considerable thought has gone into the juxtaposition of the images and the result makes leafing through the pages more thought provoking. I especially liked the placing of covergirl Kate Moss, gorgeous in a Marlene Dietrich style tuxedo, facing a page with a photo of La Dietrich herself.