Simon Schama’s Face of Britain

Past display archive
16 September 2015 - 4 January 2016



Historian Simon Schama joined with the National Portrait Gallery curators to take a fresh look at the Collection and present a cross-period exploration of the history of Britain through portraiture.

Focusing on the themes of PowerLoveFameSelf and People, he asked what makes a successful portrait and what this tells us about the individual and collective psyche of the time.

Developed in partnership with the BBC, Simon Schama’s Face of Britain coincided with the broadcast of a five-part series on BBC2 and the publication of an accompanying book by Viking/Penguin Random House.


Audio Guide

The exhibition audio guide was adapted from a Penguin Books audio CD read by Simon Schama and Roy McMillan. Listen to a clip from it below, in which Simon Schama explores the significance of contemporary depictions of Sir Francis Drake. 



Simon Schama’s Face of Britain explored how portraiture has been used as a statement of power, a declaration of love, for the promotion of fame, to offer insights into the artists themselves and to capture ordinary people. Portraits can provide a fresh perspective on the history of Britain and the identity of its people. The exhibition was divided into five themes, displayed over three floors of the Gallery.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, 1941
© Karsh / Camera Press

The Face of Power

The powerful have a very particular sense of how they want to be represented – their public lives depend on it. The face of power is one of the most dramatic types of portraiture because there is usually a tension between the sitter’s self-image, the artist’s desire to create great art and the purpose of the portrait. Portraits of the powerful range from officially-commissioned images that serve as visual propaganda to satire that undermines the very power it portrays. In between, there are some surprisingly intimate and affecting images that reveal the human side to power.

Jane Morris
Jane Morris (née Burden) by John Robert Parsons; Emery Walker Ltd, July 1865
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Face of Love

The craving to keep the ones we love close to us never goes away. If they can’t be with us, having their likeness can turn absence into presence, divide distance, freeze time and even defy death. Nor is the face of love always for private appreciation, inside every passionate relationship there is the urge to show it off to everyone. Whether presentation oil paintings or private photographs, love portraits reverberate with either the artist or the patron’s emotions – whether reciprocated or unrequited.

Gwen John
Gwen John by Gwendolen Mary (‘Gwen’) John, circa 1900
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Face of Self

All the works in these two rooms are self-portraits. They reveal that when an artist looks at themselves in the mirror it becomes the battleground between vanity and verity, flattery and truth. The resulting portraits can offer moments of candour that let us into the raging conflicts of the artist’s ego or they might offer an intimate vision, which promises more than it reveals. Throughout history, self-portraits have presented moments of reckoning, as they address themselves to posterity and ask the essential question: ‘Who am I?’

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon)
by William Hoare, 1733. OM.762.
Orientalist Museum, Doha.

The Face of the People

The majority of portraits ever painted have been of the great and the good. But there has always been a glorious strain in British art that tells it like it is, and for which all humanity is fit for portrayal. History isn’t just made up of influential people, it is also made up of an infinity of wonderful characters without whom history loses all its richness and human variety. With technological advances in printmaking and photography, portraiture has increasingly recorded and celebrated the individuals in the crowd — faces that might otherwise be forgotten.

Simon Schama

Photograph of Simon Schama

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University and the prize-winning author of seventeen books, including The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory, Rembrandt's Eyes, the History of Britain trilogy and The Story of the Jews. He is a contributing editor of the Financial Times and his award-winning television work as writer and presenter for the BBC includes the fifteen-part A History of Britain and the eight-part, Emmy-winning Power of Art.

Image: Simon Schama © National Portrait Gallery, London


Click on the links below for further information on selected sitters from Simon Schama’s Face of Britain in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection. 

David Bomberg

Lewis Carroll

Patrick Cotter

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

Diana, Princess of Wales

Maria Anne Fitzherbert

Gerlach Flicke

Isaac Fuller

Emma, Lady Hamilton

Thomas Hobson

Gwen John

Dame Laura Knight

Jane Morris

Horatio Nelson

George Romney

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

William Wilberforce