The other day I was reading about a portrait being removed from the National Portrait Gallery because the person in the picture had ‘fallen from grace’. That set me thinking about who gets their portraits painted – the great and the good and the wealthy generally speaking. And then that set me thinking about what it must have been like before photography came along…
Imagine if you didn’t have your photo albums, or your pictures stored on your laptop, tablet or phone, would you feel lost? I know I would. I often look at the photos of my family (especially my gorgeous granddaughter Grace) and they are inspiring, comforting and often poignant when it is a photo of someone who is no longer with us.
So imagine life before the photograph. Unless you were wealthy enough to have had a portrait painted, or were lucky enough to know someone talented who could sketch a likeness… you would have no record of your loved one. I find that very hard to think about as we have all grown up with photographs creating ‘instant’ images and knowing we can look back and savour an event, or a person.
Photography really began in the first half of the 1800s, but didn’t become commonplace until the second half of that century. So, carrying around an image of your loved one is a relatively recent thing. I am guessing that is why people had locks of hair and other mementoes stored in lockets and the like – there was nothing else they could do.
And so, back to portraits… and of course one of the fascinating things about them is that they are the ‘likeness’ created by the painter and may not be all that accurate. I always smile when I see portraits from certain eras when it seems all women were endowed with incredibly sloping shoulders (sweaters would have simply slipped to the floor!), or swan-like long necks that would have looked ridiculous in real life.
We don’t really know what Jane Austen looked like, but there are enough portraits of people powerful or famous in their day – like Oliver Cromwell for example – to know that he really was a bit of a warty old thing! We know that King Henry VIII had red hair and was a pretty stout chap, but of course no-one who wanted to live a full life was going to portray him as fat and balding, now were they?!
So, we are lucky today in that the arrival of digital photography means we can pretty much take photos any time and any place we like. But are we that lucky? There is, of course, the issue that most of us do not print our photos out, just as we rarely write letters in ink on paper, trusting everything to technology. If disaster ever strikes and the internet fails or we run out of electricity, we would lose everything. The National Portrait Gallery will still be there and libraries and archives of letters will still exist. But perhaps after all, it is the memories we retain in our minds that really count as they stay with us for ever.