One Powerful Painting

I’m still processing the subject of my graduate institute–the enduring fascination and evolving image(s) of the Tudors, collective and individual–even though it ended on this past Friday afternoon. The week was pretty intense: a lot of history, prints, portraits and plays, films and discussions of all of the above. The students were great: many of them were high-school and middle-school teachers who are always fun to teach. I don’t think we had any problem figuring out the towering and projecting figures of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the perpetual pull of the three beheaded ladies (Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen”) seems a bit more complex, especially the latter. While Anne’s and Mary’s lives were longer and their impact greater, young Jane still captivates, and I think this is largely due to one powerful painting– Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)–and its impact on the Victorian era and our own.

Jane execution

Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833; National Gallery, London

Lady Jane Grey, the grand-niece of Henry VIII, was proclaimed Queen following the death of Edward VI in 1553, as part of a short-lived coup initiated by her father-in-law John Dudley, The Duke of Northumberland, to avoid the succession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, who had a more legitimate claim. She ruled for only nine days (until July 19) and was executed for high treason in February of 1554. Over the centuries, Jane has transcended historical-footnote-status for several reasons: she can be seen as a Protestant martyr or an innocent (feminine) pawn, depending on the time and place. But Delaroche transformed her into more a romantic heroine, grasping for her “headrest” in the dark, clothed in some semblance of a satin wedding dress! With all the anachronistic details, Delaroche took Jane out of her own time and placed her in his, enabling future portrayals to follow suit. The painting was apparently a sensation when it was first exhibited, and inspired many sentimental depictions of Jane and her end over the nineteenth century–and after. It was donated to the National Gallery in 1902 but forgotten for much of the twentieth century after it was feared lost in the Tate Gallery Flood of 1928. After its rediscovery in the 1970s, it was restored and re-installed at the National Gallery, where it was the subject of a 2010 exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, which seems specially timed to coincide with the “Tudor-mania” of the past decade. That same year, Victoria Hall produced her own portrayal of Lady Jane, or (more accurately) Delaroche’s Lady Jane.

Jane 18th c

Jane Last Moments

Jane Tower Grant

Jane 2010 Victoria Hall

Lady Jane Grey before Delaroche (anonymous etching and engraving, late 18th century, British Museum) and after: Hendrik Jackobus Scholten, The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey, The Tower of London; William James Grant, The Tower (The Relics of Lady Jane Grey), 1861, Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London; Victoria Hall, After Delaroche, 2010.


7 responses to “One Powerful Painting

  • cecilia

    Yes, that image is haunting.. a nasty historical period, one of many.. the pursuit of power being what it is..extre ordinary painting.. c

  • agnesashe

    Very interesting post. One thing you don’t get when viewing screen reproductions of the ‘Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ is just how big the painting is. It is about 8 feet by 12 feet (246cm x 297 cm) and I remember my mother standing in front of it being mesmerized by the picture’s intensity, its intimate content yet physical size.

  • stellajack

    Excellent post. All the paintings are looking amazing.

  • grammiepoet

    You mention the three beheaded women – but what about Katherine Howard?

    Also, in your research, have you come across the Bisley Boy? Apparently there is a theory that the Princess Elizabeth died young and a young boy from the village of Bisley was substituted and became queen! It sounds preposterous, but it’s been around for a while – Bram Stoker wrote about it – and now there’s a relatively new historical fiction/thriller abuot it. I had never come across this one, but my daughter was recently in Portugal and heard about it there!

    • daseger

      Hi Priscilla–Katherine Howard really didn’t rate for us, though we briefly examined the Ford Madox Ford book The Fifth Queen. I have heard of the Bisley Boy–and several other Elizabethan conspiracies–I’ve got to chase them all down one day and try to make sense of them.

  • grammiepoet

    Phillipa Gregory writes of Kat Howard rehearsing for her beheading the night before – a truly tragic scene as this vain and fairly vapid young woman practices kneeling gracefully to expose her neck. I would have put this down to literary fancy had I not read of the “rehearsing” previously (though arguably less dramatically!) At any rate, I think the depiction of Katherine Howard as a foolish young girl is part of her pull. She was apparently the absolute antithesis of Lady Jane Grey – which, as I think about it, might make for an interesting research paper! Or has it already been done?

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