In 1973, a huge, rolled-up canvas was found in the cellars of the Tate Gallery. Measuring 97 by 117 inches, it turned out to be The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by the French painter Paul Delaroche, a work which had been believed lost when the museum was flooded in the 1920s. The painting shows the 16-year-old blindfolded Lady Jane kneeling in front of a scaffold, clad in radiant white and groping for the chopping block, supported by Sir John Brydges, the Lieutenant of Tower. On her right, the executioner waits impassively with his axe, while two ladies in waiting lament on the other side.

As a lark, the curators of the National Gallery decided to put it on show in 1975 as an example of the bad taste of the Paris Salon; modern museumgoers were expected to disapprove heartily of historical narrative painting. Just to make sure, the accompanying catalogue noted that Delaroche “is regarded, when the 20th century thinks of him at all, as something of a charlatan who merits his present obscurity.”

But of course, expert opinion and popular taste have a way of disagreeing, and much to the curators’

surprise—and disgust, no doubt—Lady Jane Grey quickly turned into one of the museum’s most popular paintings. The floor in front of it had to be constantly repolished. And now, decades later, a new set of curators has made a reassessment and arranged a full-dress exhibition of Delaroche at the same National Gallery, reestablishing him as an important contemporary of Ingres, Delacroix, and Gericault.

At the height of his popularity in the 1830s, Paul Delaroche was Europe’s highest-paid painter, and the most reproduced in prints. Done in the high finish typical of the Paris Salon, the great themes running through his works are martyrdom and usurpation: Gone is the heroic optimism of David and the Revolutionary Age. Delaroche concentrates on victims. As one critic has put it, he has a knack of choosing subjects “that attack the nervous system of the public.”

In a great clash of martyrdoms, when Lady Jane Grey was first exhibited in the Salon in 1834, she blew Ingres’s ambitious Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian off the wall. Where Ingres’s painting was vague and diffuse, leaving the viewer confused as to what was going on, Delaroche left no such doubts: The poor girl’s head was about to roll, and nothing could be done about it. For years afterwards, Ingres suffered nightmares of spectators crowding around Delaroche’s work and ignoring his own masterpiece. But why would a Frenchman paint such a thoroughly English subject? After the defeat of Waterloo, there was a great interest in English history in France, and in the works of Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and Byron. So prior to Jane Grey Delaroche had done The Princes in the Tower, with Edward V and the Duke of York clinging to each other, while their little dog senses the approach of doom. He had also done a harrowing Last Moments of Queen Elizabeth.

The Civil War attracted his special attention. In British Victorian art one finds a glorification of Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads as protectors of the constitution, reflecting a contemporary reading of history. But a competing strain celebrates the Lost Cause of Charles I and the Cavaliers, reaching its apotheosis in William Frederick Yeames’s And When Did You Last See Your Father, where crafty Puritan interrogators try to make an innocent child reveal the whereabouts of his parent. The French, however, had their own take on the conflict: They saw it as a forerunner of the French Revolution, offering the chance to perform what Sir Roy Strong has called “a historical autopsy on the Revolution.” Thus, Charles was seen as a prototype of Louis XVI, and Cromwell of Napoleon.

Delaroche did three great Civil War paintings: Cromwell Before the Coffin

of Charles I
, with the Lord Protector—“brutal as fact,” in the words of the poet Heinrich Heine—standing over the body of his defeated enemy. This was followed by Charles Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers, where coarse guards blow smoke in the king’s face and spill wine over him; and Strafford on his Way to Execution, with Charles’s councilor Thomas Wentworth being led away, and Archbishop Laud blessing him from his cell window. Though Delaroche would deny any specific connection, it is impossible not to interpret these works as indirect comments on recent French history.

Delaroche achieved his effects by employing elements of the stage, making the viewer a witness to the crimes. For several of his paintings he built little stage sets, complete with plaster model figures that could be manipulated into desired positions. In visits to Britain he also went to some lengths to get the historical details; for dramatic effect, however, he allowed himself certain liberties. The execution of Lady Jane, for instance, is transposed to a cramped, claustrophobic indoor setting rather than the outdoor courtyard of the Tower of London where it actually took place. To this he added an element of sacred imagery, particularly strong in Charles Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers, with Charles in the role of Christ. (This painting, incidentally, was also believed to be lost when Bridgewater House was bombed in World War II.)

One quality of narrative paintings of the 19th century is that they make excellent conversation pieces—and, thus, educational tools. And rather than being judged by a cumulative effect, each painting should be assessed individually. If one of the definitions of a successful painting is that, once you have seen it you will not forget it, then Lady Jane is a successful painting. And the message Delaroche imparts—pity for the suffering individual, detestation of mob rule—are not bad lessons to pass on to the young. That the real Lady Jane Grey was not the meek, vulnerable, defenseless creature seen here, but made of considerably sterner stuff, is another matter. Similarly, Charles I was not exactly Christ, but a weak, debauched, and stubborn monarch who refused to compromise and plunged his country into civil war. One thing is certain: The thin, blood-red ring around his neck in Cromwell Before the Coffin of Charles I—where the king’s head has been sewn back on the corpse—will forever fascinate schoolchildren with its ghoulishness.

Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.

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