When I first came across this book, browsing in the National Portrait Gallery shop, I loved the idea behind it.
Take fourteen of the gallery’s 16th and 17th century portraits, and ask eight renowned authors to write about the individuals portrayed. Afterall, the portrait (in literary terms) is a written description or analysis of something or someone.
What makes this project more intriguing, and gives a free reign to the authors, is that these paintings - acquired for the collection between 1858 and 1971 as identified people - have since all proved not to be portraits of those named individuals.
Interestingly, the face on the cover of the book - given originally as Mary, Queen of Scots is still being used with that attribution - see a recent article in History Extra on the 9 worst monarchs in history.
As the art historian Tarnya Cooper points out in her essay in the book ‘Did my hero look like that? Identifying sitters in historic British portraits’:
Once a picture loses its link with a family collection or an identifying label, the stitching of those details back together proves virtually impossible.
So each of these sitters in the portraits are now unknown, mystery people.
Perhaps the portrait is the only document which remains of a past life.
All we are left with is the picture within the frame.
An individual presenting a pose, their face and expression, what the sitter is wearing, which in these examples are the fashion of the 16th and 17th centuries.
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