Looking for England

May 17, 2006 at 8:44 pm (General)

A POINT OF VIEW

By David Cannadine 

A portrait of a half-Welsh king by a German painter is a classic icon of England, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly column.  

    This week, the media have returned with relish to the endlessly fascinating debate about Englishness – a form of national identity that is distinct from Welshness, or Scottishness, or Irishness or Britishness.

     Renewed public discussion has been prompted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which has launched a project, entitled Icons – a Portrait of England, to try and find the most resonant symbols of Englishness. The culture minister, David Lammy, convened a panel of advisers, and they have come up with a preliminary list of the top 12 English icons.

     They range across the millennia from Stonehenge to the FA Cup, and across the country from the Routemaster bus, which has now all but disappeared from the streets of London, to the Angel of the North, a recent, towering statue in Gateshead. And by including both the King James Bible and the SS Empire Windrush, they also pay tribute to England's Christian past and to its increasingly multicultural present.

     Of course, there are plenty of other candidates for inclusion in this pantheon of Englishness, and the M1 and the miniskirt, along with pantomime dames and Wallace and Gromit, have already been suggested. But I was especially delighted that this first list included Holbein's magnificent portrait of King Henry VIII, one of the most famous pictures of a monarch ever painted.

     I'm delighted about this for two reasons. In the first place, this portrait, of this person, by this artist, nicely illustrates just how difficult it can be to select symbols of national identity which are pure and unambiguous. Indeed, I'd like to think that may have been the very reason why it was chosen.

     To be sure, Henry VIII was king of England, as was his father, Henry VII. But Henry VII was Henry Tudor before he became king, and he was a card-carrying Welshman, who had been born west of Offa's Dyke in Pembroke Castle.

     This in turn means that Henry VIII was at least as Welsh as he was English. As for Holbein: he was born in the German city of Augsburg in 1497, he later moved to Basle in Switzerland, and he only reached England in his very late twenties.

     So the painter was even less of an Englishman than the subject of his portrait.

     If Norman Tebbit's cricket test could have been applied during the first half of the 16th Century, asking: "Which national team do you cheer?", Henry VIII would probably have been compelled to make do with Glamorgan as a surrogate for Wales, while Hans Holbein wouldn't have had a clue as to what the game was all about.

     As icons of Englishness, Henry and Holbein embody a vision of national identity which is more outward looking and cosmopolitan than inward looking and isolationist, and that strikes me as being all to the good.

     But there's a second reason why I'm delighted that this picture has been included in this first list of the Icons project, and that's because one version of it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, in London, which by agreeable coincidence is celebrating its 150th anniversary during this year.

Past and future

     Before I go any further I must, in parliamentary parlance, declare my interest: I'm the chairman of the Gallery's Board of Trustees. So this is not an institution about which I can claim to be impartial: the gallery is a place of which I'm both very fond and rather proud.

     But I can say that an anniversary such as this is the perfect occasion for considering how the gallery was founded as an expression of national identity and national self-esteem; how the gallery and the nation have evolved and changed together during the intervening century-and-a-half; and how they may be expected to continue evolving and changing as we take this opportunity to peer into its future as well as to revisit its past.

Ruling elite

     And the gallery's founders were concerned to recognise achievement across a wide range of human activities: partly out of patriotic pride, and partly to provide examples of distinguished and exemplary lives which others might seek to emulate.

     As such, and in a somewhat understated way, the National Portrait Gallery was founded to celebrate national history, national greatness and national identity; and it was just these themes that were re-stated at the close of the 19th Century, when Leslie Stephen conceived and carried through one of the most remarkable publishing enterprises of all time: the multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography.

     The creators of the National Portrait Gallery, and of the Dictionary of National Biography, belonged to the ruling elite of what was then the richest and most powerful nation in the world, so it's scarcely surprising that they believed that great men (and, just very occasionally, great women) made history, and that a disproportionate number of them came from these islands.

     During the 20th Century, with the decline and fall of the British Empire, and as Britannia has ceased to rule the waves, it hasn't been so easy to maintain those beliefs.

     Add to that the rise of abstract, non-representational art, the impact of photography, film and television, and the constantly reiterated refrain that portraiture is dead, and you might be forgiven for concluding that the Gallery would be doomed to failure.

     Yet the reality is that precisely the opposite has happened, and that the National Portrait Gallery has never been as popular a place as it is now. Its visitor figures are in excess of one and a half million a year, and since 1969, the trustees have been able to commission portraits of people during their own lifetime, which they had previously not been allowed to do.

     This has transformed the gallery, and among those whose portraits have appeared on its walls in recent years are the celebrity footballer David Beckham, the military historian Sir Michael Howard, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, and the best-selling novelist, JK Rowling.

     Together, they represent a greater variety of backgrounds and a wider range of achievement than was recognized by the gallery 100 years ago, and they are also indicative of the ways in which our ideas of national identity and national distinction have expanded and evolved – and are continuing to expand and evolve.

Unequivocally iconic  

     Icons of nationhood are important and complex and constantly mutating things – especially in our own time, when we are regularly being told that the nation state is on the way out, as globalization sweeps all before it.

     Yet as the heirs to a century which witnessed not only Hitler and Stalin, but also Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, it's surely premature to write off the influence of individuals in national – and international – history.

     As Anne Boleyn knew to her cost, Henry VIII certainly had plenty of influence. But he did not use it all for good.

     He was far from being a wholly admirable man, and he was far from being a wholly English man. Perhaps that's why he deserves to be on the first list of national icons.

Published: 2006/01/17

© BBC News Magazine MMVI

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