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Episode 41

The National Gallery Podcast

In the March 2010 podcast, painting history: uncovering the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey at our latest exhibition. Plus shedding new light on the Gallery, and Hogarth's homes.

16 min 18 sec | March 2010

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. Coming up: at home with William Hogarth, and how some work behind the scenes is giving visitors the chance to look at paintings in a whole new light.

'Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we begin with our major new exhibition. It’s devoted to one of the Gallery’s most popular works, Paul Delaroche’s 1834 masterpiece, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. This monumental canvas depicts one of the darker episodes in English history, in which the blindfolded figure of the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey has to be helped to find the block on which she must place her head. A victim of her power-hungry father-in-law, John Dudley, Lady Jane ruled as queen for just nine days following the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI. But her cousin, the Catholic Mary Tudor, seized the throne. Lady Jane was held prisoner in the Tower of London, convicted of treason, and on 12 February 1554 she was beheaded. Almost 456 years to the day, Leah Kharibian and the National Gallery’s Chris Riopelle made a visit to a very chilly Tower to meet Historic Royal Palaces curator, Jane Spooner. There, she took them to a spot rich in associations with the ‘Nine Days Queen’.

Jane Spooner: We’re standing on Tower Green, which is famous for its association with the execution of Lady Jane Grey. To one side is the medieval Beauchamp Tower and is where her husband and her husband’s family were imprisoned after her fall and Mary Tudor’s triumphant return to London. And in front of me is St Peter ad Vincula, the Chapel Royal, and this is where Lady Jane Grey’s body is buried. And over to the right hand side, over to what’s now the parade ground, right next to the White Tower, is actually where we know that the scaffold was erected for the execution of the unfortunate queen, and this is actually recorded in a chronicle written by somebody who was very likely to have been an eye-witness – a tower official.

Leah Kharibian: And Jane, do you find that visitors are still really fascinated in the story? Are they still looking for the precise place where Lady Jane Grey was executed?

Jane Spooner: Yes, visitors do come to the Tower and they’re always expecting an ‘X-marks-the-spot’ moment and of course so much history did happen at the Tower of London, but we don’t always know the exact location. We do know where Lady Jane Grey was executed but it actually isn’t where we have a memorial for people executed within the Tower walls. This spot was created on the orders of Queen Victoria, who was so moved by the story of Anne Boleyn, but we now use this particular execution site memorial space as a place to commemorate all of those who were executed within the Tower walls and that includes Lady Jane Grey.

Leah Kharibian: And Chris, if I can ask you, I mean, the enduring fascination of Lady Jane Grey, does that go for you too, for the painting at the National Gallery?

Chris Riopelle: Yes, ever since the painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey was rediscovered in 1973 and then put on view at the National Gallery in 1975, it has been something of a phenomenon. Almost immediately it emerged as one of the favourite paintings in the National Gallery; people were fascinated by the story, by the realism of it, and to this day there is always a crowd in front of it. The picture remains extraordinarily popular. In fact, we notice that such are the crowds that the varnish on the floor is repeatedly worn down and has to be replaced on a regular basis.

Leah Kharibian: And what do you think accounts for this fascination in Lady Jane’s story? If I could ask you first, Jane?

Jane Spooner: Well, I think certainly at the Tower, it’s the contrast between this very young girl pitted against some of the most politically ambitious motives of the day; imprisoned in what is, in the popular imagination, a very harsh stony fortress. The Tower is associated with dungeons, torture, and execution in people’s minds. I think when people come to the Tower and they realise this is the real location, this is the place where Lady Jane Grey actually met her death, I think that’s a very moving and profound thing.

Leah Kharibian: And Chris, we know that Delaroche… although it’s an absolutely fantastic painting, he did play around with some of the elements, didn’t he? For example, the execution appears to take place indoors as opposed to outside as we know it really did.

Chris Riopelle: Yes, but Delaroche was very interested in getting the details right. And we know that he came to London twice in 1822 and 1827 to do research. He came to the Tower of London to see what it was like, to make notes – there are notes and sketches made here – he wanted you to feel that he was acting as a historian. There are a very large number of preparatory drawings as he worked out the details, worked out the placement of the figures, those are all gathered in the exhibition, and also Delaroche was the French painter most obsessed with English history. Throughout his career, he painted these great scenes from English history, three of them set here at the Tower of London, and those are all in the exhibition as well, showing Lady Jane Grey in the widest context.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle, Jane Spooner and all at the Tower of London. 'Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey' runs until 23 May. A combined exhibition and audio guide ticket costs £11 and is available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Lighting the Gallery

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Behind the scenes now… or rather, above the scenes, to shed some light on a new development in how we present pictures to the public. You’ll hear from Joe Padfield, Charles Ross, and curator Dawson Carr in this report.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): Well, I’ve come to Room 30 with Joe Padfield from Scientific, to do something that I’ve never done before, at least not in company, and that is ponder the effect of light on how we look at paintings. Joe, what effect does different kinds of light have on the way we look at the works?

Joe Padfield: Well, if you think about sunlight, it’s a very, sort of, even light level. If you see in the rain, you’ll see a rainbow, when the light goes through the water and you actually see all of the colours present in the rainbow. Now, when you look at paintings or other works of art under that type of light all of the colours that you’re wanting to see are reflected back from the paintings. So paintings and other works of art can be seen at their best when they have a full range of different colours being reflected from them in nice, natural light. Now a lot of the time, depending on whether there is no natural light, or if you’re indoors with no windows, we need to work with artificial lights. Now, artificial lights don’t always have that complete broad spectrum of colours present in the light even though it looks white. So if you look at a normal tungsten bulb, it will appear slightly yellow, it doesn’t have as much blue in it, so we can sort of design or you specifically design lights to maximise the quality of that but it often doesn’t give you the same aesthetic feel as being able to see the paintings and objects under natural daylight.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): Well, the Gallery has recently come up with a very nifty solution to that problem. I’m just moving through into Room 32; Charles Ross who’s Head of Buildings and Facilities is going to tell me what that is. Charles, already in this room we can see that it’s a lot brighter. What’s the solution that the Gallery has come up with?

Charles Ross: We’ve always had a problem… there’s competing demands on allowing enough natural daylight into a room while not letting the pictures deteriorate under sunlight. And the solution we’ve come up with is that we have external blinds that control the amount of daylight that can enter the room. Now we’ve just installed some new software that allows the blinds to automatically adjust to the sun’s path across the sky, and what it does is optimise the amount of natural daylight without having direct sunlight onto pictures, which is obviously cause for concern.

Miranda Hinkley: So if you look up you can actually see that there are kind of louvred blinds up there and they’re busily working away, although you wouldn’t be able to actually see it, just by being in the room.

Charles Ross: That’s right. It’s invisible from within the room apart from the very slight shadows caught on the glass.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s even cleverer than that, because there are sensors in the space.

Charles Ross: Yeah, if you’d been here a few minutes ago, you’d have seen the lights were all on in this room. Since that’s happened one of the lights has gone off, and now both the lights have gone off with each picture. That’s happened because we have sensors in the room that monitor the daylight and when there’s sufficient daylight within the room, one light will go out, and if there’s even more light, then the second light will go out. That obviously saves us a lot of money when it comes to electricity. We haven’t had that ability prior to the new blinds. Because we allow in so much natural daylight, we don’t have to compensate with artificial light.

Miranda Hinkley: We can certainly feel that there’s a lot more natural light, but Dawson do you feel that it changes the way you see these paintings?

Dawson Carr: It absolutely does. And one of the reasons that we really favour the use of natural light is that the light becomes very lively. It changes in the course of the day. We’re seeing it right now, because there are fast moving clouds overhead. And of course, when the light changes the quality of the paintings change, what you see in the paintings change, the emphasis on various colours changes, and so we like this. When a scholar comes to visit to study a painting, we always remind them that we have this situation with this lively light, and that they should go back at various points during the course of their visit to view these paintings and we often get mail from them saying ‘thank you so much, because I saw this at that point, and that at this point that I never noticed before’. And so it’s a very positive thing, this liveliness of the light.

Miranda Hinkley: I certainly feel that particularly the flesh in the paintings looks great in this kind of light.

Dawson Carr: That’s right. And of course so much of our art is about figure painting, it’s about flesh tones, and they tend to look their most natural under natural light. Up until the 19th century most of these painters were working under natural light, principally natural light, and knew that the paintings would be viewed under natural light, and therefore they tend to look their best when we’re not blasting them with artificial illumination.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Dawson Carr. If you’d like to see the difference for yourself, the new system’s in operation in Gallery 32 – let us know what you think. 

At home with Hogarth

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Our final story begins with an unhappy arranged marriage. The wife is unfaithful; the husband finds out. There’s a confrontation – the husband’s murdered by the lover, who’s caught and hung in turn, leaving the wife to kill herself in grief and remorse. It’s not the funniest of stories, and yet it’s the subject of one of the most famous satirical works of all time: William Hogarth’s series of six paintings and engravings, Marriage A-la-Mode. As with any home, the interiors depicted by Hogarth are full of tiny details that say a lot about their inhabitants. We invited Professor Amanda Vickery, a historian of domestic life, to take a look through the keyhole of the first painting in the series and ask, 'who lives in a house like this?'

Amanda Vickery: If we look at the first in the series of 'Marriage A-la-Mode', which was originally published as a series of engravings in 1745, we can see in the very first that a marriage negotiation is in progress and basically an earl’s son is being married off to a rich merchant’s daughter. So cash is being exchanged for rank and blood, and so in the foreground, we have the two fathers – the miserly city merchant who’s peering through his spectacles, but also we have the gouty earl. Here he is – he’s sat resplendent in his chair, very bombastic, chest is up, he’s sort of indicating himself, you know, ‘I am he’, but of course he’s got his foot, his gouty foot, up on a footstool, so obviously the wages of sin there, you know, his aristocratic dissipation; but to ram home the point, he’s gesturing to his family tree, this absurd pedigree that he’s got rolling out down the chair, with a sort of Norman knight at the bottom, which is clearly preposterous. The implication is that this is fake – that’s he not really descended from the Normans. What is going on really is he’s selling his son for money because out of the window, you can see going up, a formidable Palladian mansion. And building houses, this reminds us, cost fortunes. So the house is not just about intimacy and privacy, it’s also a great assertion of your magnificence.

Miranda Hinkley: And it certainly looks like a very uncomfortable interior. I mean, all the characters are either engaged in some sort of monetary transaction, counting coins or looking at mortgage titles, and the bride herself looks really unhappy about the whole thing.

Amanda Vickery: Well, the central couple themselves, who the whole story’s going to unfold about, are the most unwilling young bride and groom, and the bride is an absolute picture of misery, sort of looking down in absolute despair, but you can see next to her, the lawyer Silvertongue is working his magic on her and lasciviously, he’s kind of sharpening his quill, which is quite a suggestive gesture, which has to imply the kind of sexual relationship they’re going to go on to have.

But next to her, and not looking at her at all, is the foppish and narcissistic young groom. He’s all in blue, he has little red heels on his shoes, which show that he’s been presented at court in Paris. But what’s he looking at? He’s looking at himself in the mirror. So Hogarth is giving us a very vicious depiction here of aristocratic culture and marriage as barter and sale, and the fact that this is going to be an utterly loveless marriage is foreshadowed in the front of the picture by the two chained dogs. So the marriage that’s going to ensue from this negotiation is going to be a prison.

Miranda Hinkley: Amanda, what does this tell us about the idea of home? I mean, home seems to be a rather uncomfortable place in all of these works.

Amanda Vickery: Well, I think it goes back to the heart of the paradox around home even today. We long for homes to be places of safety, shelter, emotional nurturance, but also homes are clearly the place of cruelty – domestic violence begins at home – and they’re places of hierarchy and power, so domestic rituals, however beautiful, still rely on somebody to do the work for you, so as we can see in all these paintings, there’s servants in the background making it all happen. And the Georgian home in particular was a place of elaborate hierarchy, especially in the aristocracy. It was a kind of ladder and it was arranged for the comfort of the senior members, so it’s not all hearts and flowers, ambrosia and nectar behind closed doors. It’s about power and rank, and for the aristocracy, it’s about the display of their magnificence. Well for Hogarth, he’s saying this magnificence is fake, it’s a façade, it lacks discernment and at its heart there’s no virtue. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Amanda Vickery talking about 'The Marriage Settlement', the first painting in Hogarth’s 'Marriage A-la-Mode'. Come along to the Gallery to see the other five instalments in the story, or check our website, .

That’s it for this month. Until next time, goodbye!