I have a great appreciation for art. It inspires me. It rebukes me. In fact, I was rebuked by art last September when I went to London. My sister and I were wandering around the National Gallery one quiet day. I was admiring the paintings of all the great men I had studied in history the previous year. I found my hero, Marlborough. He wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought to find a kinder face. But after all, he was on the battlefield, immediately after a great victory. What can you expect? Perhaps a whole man’s character can’t be captured in a single moment – especially following a battle in which he’s lost a great deal of men. Very sobering – even in light of the victory.
I had studied Sir Robert Walpole that year. He captured my attention immediately. I considered him the physician of England – whom nobody appreciated. After England had been tossed in the throes of war for the past 50 years, she emerged with a national debt of extraordinary size. Her troops were almost exhausted. The time was one of economic distress. Sir Robert Walpole began the laborious task of raising England from her fallen state. He persevered even though his efforts went unappreciated. However, when the respective monarchs of England, France and Spain had a quarrel about the successor of the King of Spain (each monarch had possible candidates, seeing as the present had no direct heir) England was eager to plunge straight into war again. Robert Walpole attempted to prevent it, but the urge upon the people was too strong. They were tired of peace. He said, as he watched the parade in the streets of London: “They ring their bells now, but soon they will wring there hands.” His hard perseverance, his dark foreboding of the future, produced a rather stern-faced image in my mind. Therefore, when I saw Sir Robert Walpole hanging on the wall of the National Gallery, I cocked my head, and then smiled, because it looked like he was about to smile too.
I’ve searched frantically, but can’t remember for my life where I put the notebook in which I wrote notes on this painting. I remember saying: “He looks a bit like Benjamin Franklin. Slightly dull, but with a keen smile on his face, as though he knows what’s going on and nobody else does.” He looks more like he would make a joke about the Spanish Succession rather than the remark he did make, with the exception of those black eyebrows, contrasted by the wig. His eyes have the half-drooping look that makes you think that anything you say to him cannot aspire to his region of thought and knowledge. Yet still, he looks a little kind, though perhaps annoyed with the painter.
I saw later this portrait of young John Churchill (Duke of Marlborough.)
He’s handsome, isn’t he? His features are finely chiseled. His face is proud, austere. His eyes dark, his mouth resolute. He looks the picture of pride, determination and resolution. Yet there’s life – there’s a fire in his eyes that’s absent from Robert Walpole’s. It might be due to the difference in styles of painting, or maybe it’s a difference of character; possibly it’s the contrast of age. But whatever, it’s interesting to notice the differences between paintings – especially portraits. I read about Robert Walpole, but gained a new perspective by seeing his portrait. I read about Marlborough, and likewise gained a new perspective on his character. Yet both portraits, somehow, retained the characteristics they contradicted at first glance. Marlborough was still kind. Walpole was still stern. Portraits are interesting, and beautiful. Through them you glimpse the beauty of a century, of an age, of the painter’s soul, of the subject’s character. :)