“Don’t go. Don’t change. Stay with me.” Thus spake Simon Schama in an unusual apostrophe that began the fourth, penultimate episode of Face of Britain, his history of British portraiture. If it sounded like a fairly shameless appeal to channel-hoppers it was unnecessary: this was Schama the Charmer at his absolute best, quietly provocative, unpredictable, educative, at times effervescent. Of course we were going to stay with him.
The episode, entitled The Look of Love, was all about love portraits – painting and photography considered as tender moments held in aspic, even as we know the moment has passed. Schama unveiled a bravura thesis – we leapt from Van Dyck to Lewis Carroll’s photographs of the young girl who inspired his Alice; to Rossetti to Francis Bacon to Jenny Savile to, finally, Annie Leibowitz’s photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken hours before Lennon was shot dead.
All of these were deployed as examples of how artists have captured different types of love, before Schama concluded, in a glittering denouement, that, in his opinion, the Leibowitz portrait captured every type of love.
As he analysed the Leibowitz Schama looked like he might be holding back a lover’s tear himself, and this was indicative of his style – at times boldly lyrical yet at times very personal.
“I wonder how many of you have looked on the face of a loved one when they’ve passed away,” he said at one point, suddenly addressing the camera. “Because if you have you know, don’t you, that what you’re looking at is not really them.”
Note the ‘don’t you?’ This was akin to the effect a good portrait has when suddenly the face, painted no matter how long ago, seems to come alive.
Art history on television is always subject to the central problem of how to actually display the paintings – do we want to watch Schama giving a brilliant exegesis of a Gainsborough, or would we rather use our monster flat screens to linger, close up, on the Gainsborough itself? Does using the Ken Burns effect, making the still image appear to swell and grow, contribute anything to our appreciation of that image or does it just make you feel drunk?
At times I thought Face of Britain opted too often for the face of Schama, but then less Schama would have meant less sense of what he called his ‘overheated imagination’ at work. True, he does overheat at times, but I’d rather be burnt by an overheated imagination than bored by a frigid one.