The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Hippolyte “Paul” Delaroche, was the star of the Paris Salon of 1834, drawing jealousy from Jean Auguste Ingres, a contemporary who recalled the sight of the Parisian spectators thronging around Delaroche’s work as a “horrible vision.” Reproduced in etchings, it retained popular appeal through most of the century. The painting passed from a private collection into British ownership, then left to the nation at the turn of the 20th century. Fame was fleeting and by 1928 it was kept in the basement of the current Tate Britain. When the building flooded the canvas was removed from the frame, rolled up and put away. In 1959 it was listed as destroyed, but in 1973 a young researcher looking for another large scale painting unrolled a collection of long ignored canvases. Lady Jane was one of them, perfectly preserved. It has transferred to the National Gallery and currently on permanent display dominating all other paintings in Room 41.
Cecil Gould, Keeper of the Gallery who first put the painting back on exhibit, wrote in 1975 that Delaroche “is regarded, when the 20th century thinks of him at all, as something of a charlatan who merits his present obscurity.” The National Gallery is now centering an exhibition on this famous work, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey.
Classified as Heroic Narrative Painting, contemporaries praised him for his hyper-attention to historic detail. Looking at Lady Jane, we are not seeing what really happened that day. Jane went to execution un-blindfolded and not in the privacy of a secret alcove in the Tower of London, but on Tower Green in the open air.
To great effect is the lack of eye contact within the composition, compelling us to look harder. The Constable of the Tower helps the blindfolded and groping victim to the execution block, her ladies turn away, the Constable looks not at us but Jane, the executioner studies the straw on which he will be spilling her blood. The texture draws the viewer to study the nuances of the scene, absently noting the axe standing ready, the executioner’s fingers barely brush the handle.
Continuing the Narrative style of dramatic painting Delaroche portrayed the Princes in the Tower, 1830, capturing the moment a shadow falls across the doorway. A high tragedy back-story recalling the disappearance of Edward V of England (1470-1483) and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York (1473-1483), the only sons of Edward IV of England.
Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers is another exciting piece from Delaroche exhibited by the National Gallery. Damaged during the Blitz, this painting was only unrolled last year and is not repaired, torn more than 200 times it will be shown in its wounded state.
Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey is at the National Gallery, London, from February 23 to May 23.