The Face of Britain: The History of the Nation Through Its Portraits

In This Review

The Face of Britain: The History of the Nation Through Its Portraits
By Simon Schama
Oxford University Press, 2016
632 pp.
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Contemporary art history increasingly spawns multimedia spectacles. Schama’s work on British portraiture is an example: it has appeared as a BBC series, a National Portrait Gallery exhibition, and now this book. Schama helped pioneer this multiplatform approach and remains one of the best in the business. He devotes successive chapters of this richly illustrated volume to the themes that he argues have lain at the heart of British national identity: power, love, fame, self, and “the people.” Schama does not stick to any overarching thesis for long, and he says little about deep causes, the sociological context, or even aesthetics. Rather, he recounts the personal foibles of the highlighted artists and their subjects in the manner of refined dinner-table gossip. The result is unfailingly amusing and intermittently risqué, delivered with smooth, slightly ironic panache.