Making the Most of It, English Style.

Posted on January 20th, 2011 by

When you think about England, several things spring to mind: tea, the Beatles, David Beckham, the Queen.  History comes to mind, traditions, innovations; all these are part of what England is and what England will be.  On our tour of the National Portrait Gallery, our tour guide Leslie neatly encapsulated an interesting aspect of English identity by saying, “The British have a wonderful history of cutting their losses and looking for the next opportunity.”  And this particular idea of what England is came through over and over again.

The first portrait we looked at was of a man who had a strange idea of what “cutting your losses” meant – we began with the famous portrait of Henry VIII and his father Henry VII by Hans Holbein the Younger.  This is one of the most famous portraits of Henry VIII, if not one of the most famous of a British monarch. He is depicted as powerful, larger than life, standing in the foreground, stance strong, gloves in one hand, dagger in the other – everything about this portrait shows Henry’s strength and by extension, England’s.  His father stands in the background, dressed in dark clothing and looks literally half Henry’s size.  Henry being painted this way shows the might of the country behind him; under his control, England displayed amazing autonomy and broke with Rome.  Henry’s way of cutting his losses and looking for the next opportunity came in his personal life, replacing wives without sons like it was his only job.

Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir was successful, but Edward VI’s reign was brief, and after his oldest daughter Mary I, his younger daughter Elizabeth I took the throne and her “Ditchley portrait” was the next one we saw. Again, it is an extremely famous painting, where Elizabeth is painted standing on a globe and holding gloves and a fan in her hands.  Half the background is stormy and dark, and the other half is bright and sunny, with Elizabeth splitting them to show her as so powerful that she can change the weather, implying that she will follow in her father’s footsteps as a monarch that puts the “divine” into “divine right.”  Elizabeth’s reign changed England for the better, and she used her personal life to cut England’s losses. She made use of her unmarried status to further political relations with other countries, using relationships as treaties – in fact, she considered two different French princes in order to keep France and England allied against Spain.

Another portrait we saw was of Oliver Cromwell, best known for briefly turning England into a republic.  He is older, around 40 when he sat for the portrait, and is dressed in armor – demonstrating another one of England’s key identity pieces, the willingness to fight for the country whenever the call comes.  He cut England’s losses by removing the mad Charles I from power and replacing him with the republic, hoping to preserve England’s authority in the world – which he did by successfully keeping England’s autonomy intact.

The last portrait that truly displayed cutting your losses and moving forward was one of Queen Victoria presenting a bible to an African prince. Although it’s a painting that, through a 21st century lens, is a bit cringe-worthy, it is not when viewed through a 19th century lens.  In fact, this missionary work was important to Victoria as a way for her to include all parts of her empire in something common and (as she saw it) good.  The painting is also valuable because a great deal of England’s history is wrapped up in colonialism, and her reign was a particularly prolific time for England’s empire expansion. Queen Victoria took the opportunities presented by the Empire and used them to spread Christianity across her commonwealth.

Altogether, the National Portrait Gallery trip caused this new facet in English identity to open up – something that doesn’t immediately sound like a compliment, but in fact is one of the reasons that England is still a viable power in the world.


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