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My Favourite Portrait by Leonie Frieda

John Donne
by Unknown English artist
circa 1595
NPG 6790

Leonie Frieda


Taken from the Gallery Supporters’ Magazine, Face to Face
Issue 18, [Autumn 2006]
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The National Portrait Gallery is a place to which I go for many things, and one of them is to find peace during a time of reflection. Recently I faced some difficult decisions with tricky moral implications, and, feeling adrift, I headed for the Gallery.

The escalator is my ‘Tardis’, and as I set foot in the Tudor rooms I am back in the 1500s. The Glories, so well loved and known the world over, never fail to lift my mood, but this time I saw a portrait I hadn’t noticed before.

The compelling picture that drew me is of John Donne, poet and polemicist. His handsome face emerges from the shadows of a dark background, his gypsy dark eyes that look away from the painter are arresting; a dramatic hat is just discernible from which his long hair falls on to the collar of an unlaced shirt. The image suggests a man distracted. The Latin inscription beseeches ‘Our Lady’ to illuminate our darkness, though it is only partly legible.

The portrait is of Donne in his mid-twenties, about to embark on two military expeditions with the Earl of Essex. Born a Catholic, he later converted to Protestantism. His brilliance easily matched that of the poet Francis Bacon. Donne spent his life much admired by women, he married for love, and wrote poetry, polemics and sermons with equal genius. His ten-year struggle to embrace the Anglican faith has been described as ‘Hamlet-like indecision’. For all the joyousness, fury and passion in his work he confessed to having ‘a sickly inclination’ to suicide and argued that it was morally acceptable in certain situations.

Seeing his beautiful face so preoccupied, I imagined him to be wrestling with the same kind of problems as my own. His companionship gave me comfort and I left the Gallery, as I always do, succoured in some way.

Leonie Frieda

Leonie Frieda was born in Sweden and lives in London with her two children. She is the author of the recent biography of Catherine de Medici and is currently working on her next book Renaissance Women, a dynastic epic charting the struggles and camaraderie between the most significant women of that period.

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