Lady Jane Grey reigned for just nine days as Queen of England following the death of Edward VI in 1553: she was deposed by the faction supporting Edward’s half-sister and heir, Mary Tudor. Tried for treason, the 17-year-old Lady Jane was beheaded at Tower Hill on 12 February 1554.
Delaroche shows the final moments of the blindfolded Lady Jane as she pleads, ‘What shall I do? Where is the block?’ She is being guided towards it by Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower. Her outer clothing has already been removed and is gathered in the lap of a lady-in-waiting, who has slumped to the ground. Behind her, a second lady-in-waiting stands facing the wall, unable to watch. To the right, the executioner stands waiting. Using a shallow stage-like space, theatrical lighting and life-size figures, Delaroche plays up the spectacle of the innocent young victim on the brink of martyrdom, compelling us to react to the scene before us.
Lady Jane Grey reigned for just nine days as Queen of England following the death of Edward VI in July 1553: she was deposed by the faction supporting Edward’s half-sister and heir, the Catholic Mary Tudor. Tried for treason, the 17-year-old Lady Jane was beheaded at Tower Hill on 12 February 1554.
In the catalogue for the 1834 Salon, where the painting was first exhibited, Delaroche quoted from a text about Protestant martyrs, Martyrologe des protestants, which was published in 1558. Describing her final moments, the excerpt tells how the blindfolded Lady Jane pleaded, ‘What shall I do? Where is the block?’ It is this moment that the painting shows, as the helpless Lady Jane is guided to the execution block by Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower. Her outer clothing has already been removed and is gathered in the lap of a lady-in-waiting, who has slumped to the ground. Behind her, a second lady-in-waiting stands facing the wall, unable to watch. To the right, a fifth figure, the executioner, stands waiting.
Delaroche uses a dark monochrome background of Romanesque architecture as a foil for the illuminated life-size figures – in particular the group in the centre-right – and the rich reds, browns and blacks of their clothing. Lady Jane is the visual focus of the painting, as the bright sheen of her satin petticoat (its radiant whiteness symbolising her innocence), pale skin and gleam of her wedding ring stand out from the oppressive gloom. No one in the picture looks at us, and nothing, except for the brightly-lit straw laid down to soak up the blood, comes between us and what is about to happen. The smooth finish of the paint and its lack of visible brushwork further enhance the illusion.
The early decades of the nineteenth century saw the spread of new forms of visual spectacle. These included panoramas, in which enormous paintings that completely surrounded the viewer were displayed in rotundas, and dioramas, where paintings were shown within a rotating cylindrical auditorium with the added drama of spectacular light effects. Delaroche was almost certainly aware of these immersive optical experiences when he composed this picture. He had also previously explored the techniques of creating visual spectacle himself when he made preparatory models while planning his paintings.
Another popular entertainment in French theatres, which Delaroche would have seen, was the tableau vivant – ‘a living picture’ in which actors, appropriately costumed and theatrically lit, silently held poses. Delaroche had close connections with Paris theatres, and the small cast of life-size figures, raised platform and historical props give this painting the look of a tableau vivant. The likely model for Lady Jane was a famous actress from the Comédie–Français, Mademoiselle Anaïs, who was well known for her blonde hair and slight figure, and with whom Delaroche was romantically involved. Delaroche creates a highly theatrical stage-like space at which we have a front row seat. Forced to acknowledge what is about to happen, we must make a choice between looking or looking away. This choice is already taking place in the painting itself, as the three women either turn away or are unable to see, leaving only the two men as witnesses.
Delaroche’s extensive preparatory drawings reveal how he reduced the composition to its core elements, trying out a variety of poses. These include seated, standing, kneeling and leaning figures who are variously presented frontally, half-turning or else fully turned away, displaying a range of emotional responses – horror, fear and pity. The drawings show how Delaroche was particularly preoccupied with Lady Jane and the executioner. Taking his cue from the historical source he cited in the catalogue, Delaroche specifically focuses on Lady Jane’s moment of faltering hesitation as, ‘crying piteously,’ she tentatively searches for the block, her outstretched arms gently guided by Sir John’s hands. Hands play an important role in the picture, as Delacroche uses expressive gestures to give insight into the psychological state of each character. In a highly finished watercolour sketch of 1832, a stockier version of the executioner, who holds a large broadsword, stands to the side, as if merely waiting to complete his task. However, in the painting the sword has been replaced by an axe, and the figure of brute state authority had evolved into one whose pose and facial expression suggest some degree of compassion.
When first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1834, the Execution of Lady Jane Grey was an immediate sensation. Although not historically accurate in many details – for example, the execution actually took place outdoors not inside, as shown here – the painting’s combination of intense melodrama and realism proved extremely popular with the public. Crowds gathered in front of the picture and pressed forward, eager to get close to it. Some critics were less enthusiastic, however, claiming it was too theatrical and that Delaroche had based the composition on another painting, John Opie’s Mary Queen of Scots, which he knew from an engraving. This division between public and critical responses shows the mixed reception the painting has always received. Despite its original fame, the picture was forgotten for much of the twentieth century. For decades, it was thought to have been destroyed in the Thames flood of 1928. Following its chance rediscovery in the basement of the Tate Gallery in 1973, it was exhibited two years later at the National Gallery, where it continues to be one of the most popular paintings.
Delaroche’s choice of British subject matter reflects the French fascination with English culture in the 1820s and 1830s. He had visited Britain at least twice before 1834, and in 1831 had painted a violent episode from English history that took place in the Tower of London: the murder of the two young sons of Edward IV on the order of Richard III in The Children of Edward (Louvre, Paris). Contemporary French viewers would also have been alert to the parallels between Tudor history and relatively recent events in France after the Revolution of 1789 – most obviously, the similar fates of Lady Jane Grey and the French royal family (including Marie-Antoinette), who had faced the guillotine in 1793. Delaroche turns an event from British history into a compelling visual spectacle that also served as a commentary on France’s recent and bloody past.
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