2 April 2010 early evening…
In the summer of 1988 when I was interning at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I was often sent to various libraries throughout London to do research. Whenever, I was somewhat near The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and since it was free, I would stop in to look at Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey even if it was just for 15 minutes. (See my earlier post on this painting here.) By divine providence, The National Gallery was mounting a show solely devoted to this painting during my trip to England. (The exhibition continues until 23 May 2010.) Sometimes in life all the planets align and magical things happen. Not only was I going to see the Delaroche painting again which my young 20 year old mind had been obsessed with during that summer abroad in 1988, but there was going to be an entire show surrounding this incredible work that had remained indelibly inscribed on my consciousness for the last 22 years.
Since it was Good Friday and early evening the Lady Jane exhibition was almost deserted. What a great relief. Nothing is worse than a crowded art show with people jockeying for viewing positions. Often too the gallery space is filled with the low hum of those infernal recorded guided tours. No thanks. While the Delaroche painting is replete with palpable horror, anxious tension and impending violence in its display of the spectacular moment before Lady Jane’s execution, it is also an extremely quiet painting. A crowded, noisy gallery would have disrupted and spoiled its chilly whisper.
The painting depicts an actual historical event that occurred in the Tower of London on February 12, 1554. On the orders of Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey, a member of a minor branch of the Tudor family, was executed for treason. After the death of Edward VI, Lady Jane had reigned as a Protestant Queen of England for only nine days and due to the historical circumstances of the ongoing hostilities between Protestants and Catholics in England, she had been deposed by her cousin Mary and eventually sentenced to death.
In the Delaroche work, the ladies-in-waiting on the left of the painting are collapsed in grief, but their pain is silent. Their wailing has ended and they wait now for the execution which they do not actually want to witness. The standing figure in a purplish, black dress has turned herself to the stone wall in a traditional pose of grief. Her seated companion with the fur trimmed sleeves has her eyes almost completely shut. She looks as if she is delirious with sadness. Yet, she is silent. She has collapsed in a heap on the cold stone floor of the dungeon exhausted by her anguish, holding Lady Jane’s removed jewels in her lap. She waits in agony for what is about to happen.
It is interesting to note that a preliminary sketch for the ladies-in-waiting, the seated figure is shown looking directly at the impending beheading with her hands clasped in prayer. She is not in a full painful swoon as in the final version. If this pose had been the final one, the entire nature and structure of the Delaroche would have changed and not for the better. It would have, I believe, less drama, less impact and less tension. An on looking lady-in-waiting with her eyes wide open would have distracted the spectator from the central spectacle of the coming execution. It would have been a distraction. By composing the lady-in-waiting at rest and eliding her gaze, all the focus is centered on Lady Jane and the movement of her hands as she tentatively, anxiously and pathetically reaches out for the block which of course she cannot see through her blindfold.
This action and the guiding of her hands to the block by the official in the dark, fur-trimmed robe is the only movement within the painting. The still women on the left are balanced by the meditative contraposto pose of the executioner on the right. He stands still, focused on his imminent task. The menacing glint of his ax is the only thing about him that foreshadows the looming act of violence.
In a preliminary watercolor for the painting the executioner stands with a long sword instead of an ax and he seems to scowl at his next victim rather than contemplate her. His stance is not one of repose or classical
elegance. Rather he stands feet apart, firmly planted on the dungeon floor. He faces Lady Jane directly not obliquely as in the final version of the work. This executioner is decidedly ugly and menacing; he does not possess the gracefulness of stance or demeanor of the figure in the completed painting.
For me, the pose of the executioner in the earlier watercolor like the first version of the seated lady-in-waiting would be an interruption to the main of event of Lady Jane reaching out in desperation for the block and her forthcoming death. She is located between the masculine and feminine poles of the composition, the ladies-in-waiting and the official and the executioner. There is a serenity to both poles in content as well as form. This classic, balanced composition imbues the painting with a hushed silence, a moment of reverence and emphasizes the central action of the work. The centrality of Lady Jane is further underlined by her gleaming white satin gown and porcelain skin. She appears to be illuminated from within in contrast to the surrounding gloom. And in moments her white satin dress will be splattered and stained with blood; the straw in front of the block will be soaked deep in it and her head will be on the floor.
Two other elements of the work’s composition struck me when I was again standing before the actual Delaroche. The first element is the area between the official and the executioner. This area is lighter than the surrounding darkness and leads to a space below the execution platform. One seemingly mounts a set of stairs to arrive at the location of the block. For me, this lit space as it plunges down into an unknown and unseen part of the dungeon is a symbolic displacement for death. It represents heaven, hell, the light at the end of the tunnel or the cold dirt where Lady Jane’s body will forever reside.
It is also a way out for the viewer of the narrative of imminent violence. In a sense, it is a symbolic escape route for the spectator who refuses to witness Lady Jane’s beheading. This onlooker can no longer experience the anxiety and tension of the scene and therefore looks for an exit.
I was also struck (as I had been before, but now to a greater degree) by the ledge which occupies the entire bottom length of the painting and is parallel to the picture place. Below the contemplative executioner, there is a piece of dark, green cloth, perhaps his cloak, tossed on the floor. This cloth or cloak spills over the ledge and representationally enters my space. I am in a sense brought into the impending death scene and become an actual witness to the killing. I must participate in its spectacle unless I escape down the lit stairs behind the official in the fur-trimmed robe.
Furthermore, the ledge transforms the space of the painting into a stage and I am in the audience watching an historical tragedy. The highly illusionistic nature of the work, its licked surface, its almost photographic rendering of textures, fabric, skin and space additionally underlies this idea of the work not as a depiction of the actual historical event of Lady Jane’s beheading, but rather a re-enactment of this event in a play before an audience.
In this regard, there is a continual oscillation in the work between the “real” and the “represented”, between sign and object, both in terms of form and content. This oscillation, I think, expresses, foregrounds and heightens the narrative tension of the work- the pathetic movement of Lady Jane’s searching hands. Where is the block? I cannot find it. I am about to die. I am only 16.
The approaching violence of this great painting reminds me of a quote by the intriguing art historian, Simon Schama regarding masterpieces. In his book The Power of Art, he writes, “Great art has dreadful manners. The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to rearrange your sense of reality.” For 22 years, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche has had me by the throat and I have savored every moment of its masterful grip.