Schama’s latest book The Face of Britain: a nation and its portraits has been made into a TV documentary series by the BBC and is due to be shown on BBC2 next Wednesday at 9pm, coinciding with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
I will be keen to watch the five part series. Not that I am a particular fan of portraiture. However, having heard this lecture, I get the feeling that Schama could turn the dullest corners of British history into an interesting slideshow with resplendent characters. In the flesh, he has a habit of bombarding the listener with vignettes and asides which, frankly, make your head spin. Listening to him reminds me of having to do algebra while you have to rack your brain to remember who or what 'X' or 'W' is before you do the calculus. But not in a bad way for his is pure entertainer’s patter, which is not bad for a learned academic with potentially not the broadest subject area. (For who really cares about British portraiture anyway?)
When one gets to see famous people in the flesh, one wonders if they will be like their TV persona. Schama is funnier, hipper and possibly sexier than he appears on TV. Which seventy year old art-historian can you think of who wears shiny-patent trousers and open collars with aplomb? He has an incredible memory for names and details, which pad out his anecdotes of Winston Churchill’s disastrous last portrait as Prime Minister, which was received so badly by him and those around him that it ended up in a fireplace.
He doesn’t have time here to explore, but makes plentiful references to the current tendencies of portraiture in Instagram and Snapchat and the ubiquitous selfie. The longest clip of the upcoming TV series we are shown is of WW1 soldiers and the portraits of their wounded, mutilated faces painted by Henry Tonks. It seems he sees portraiture as very much as personal as political, and even more so as primal. For faces, as he puts it are ‘how we socially navigate the world’. Faces are therefore, what we need to watch.