The National Portrait Gallery puts on great small exhibitions which are free and are ideal for a quick lunch-time or pre-meeting visit, and which, despite their smallness, are often fascinating in the insight they can offer. The other day I went to see their current exhibition on Lady Jane Grey in Room 16, the nine-day queen manipulated by political forces and executed after she was removed from the throne (more biographical info available here). The exhibition notes explain that in fact there is no verified portrait of Lady Jane during her lifetime, and many of those attributed are in fact of other people, such as Catherine Parr and even Elizabeth I. Yet despite this, Lady Jane has passed into mythology, and it is this mythologising that has led to the number of images of her we now have. The exhibition explains why: particularly in the Catholic/Protestant battle for the throne, Lady Jane came to be seen as a Protestant martyr, embodying values of passive femininity as well as a high degree of education and piety.
The most influential portrait of her is taken from the “Heroologia”, Henry Holland’s book of English Protestant heroes (1620), though this image is based on Catherine Parr. This image, which depicts a passive, pious-looking woman, was re-used in increasingly emotive and dramatic depictions, and led to the explosion of interest in her in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Certainly the Victorians produced romanticised images with elaborate versions of Tudor dress (which are quite at odds with contemporary descriptions of Lady Jane’s usual choice of attire), and envisage her as an idealised version of a martyred woman (with a hint of a simper). In many ways the best image is from Robert Sienler (1795-1865), which gives her a firm and determined face, with distinctive clothing and more character than most.
Between 1827 and 1877, 24 portraits of Lady Jane were exhibited at the Royal Academy (no doubt even more were actually painted), as anti-Catholic feeling grew in Britian and this submissive, patriotic woman came to be seen as a symbol of ideal English womanhood. Of course, this interest in her says a lot about the times in which the portraits were painted and virtually nothing at all about Lady Jane herself, who remains more or less an enigma. I wonder if the last pictures of her in the exhibition, in the mid-19th century, in which she is shown in a prison, threatened by a guard brandishing a crucifix, with the implication that she must choose between death and conversion to Catholicism, owe much to the perceived threat of Catholicism to which Gothic literature owes so much.
The most famous portrait of her is of course Delaroche’s “Execution of Lady Jane Grey” (1833), right, which is not part of this exhibition but can be seen in the National Gallery and is also well worth a look. Like so many aspects of English history (and indeed any other history), sometimes what actually happened is not so important as how it was interpreted and mythologised. This exhibition is just another reminder of that.
From February 24th the National Gallery will be holding an exhibition on Delaroche’s Lady Jane.