Because Loretta and I write books that are set in the historical past, we're always looking for ways to make that past real – not just for our readers, but for ourselves, too. Sometimes it's a little thing (a silver nutmeg grater) or a great big thing (a coaching map.) Sometimes it's a daguerrotype or a fashion print that cuts through the centuries.
And sometimes it's a portrait, like this extraordinary self-portrait, left, of English artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881.) Palmer is considered one of the most important 19th c. British romantic painters. The vibrant colors of many of his landscapes are appealingly fresh, and he shares an other-worldly quality with his good friend William Blake. See here for more about Palmer, and here for a slideshow of his work.
But when I recently came across this picture, I didn't know much about Palmer's life, or his vaunted place in British painting, either. Instead I responded to it simply as a face – and what a face it is! Self-portraits are often the most revealing of portraits, and this one is almost shockingly modern. There's not a hint of artful flattery here, and none of the beautiful, glossy, self-content here that beams from the contemporary portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
With his carefully tied cravat and his tousled hair, this young man already appears weary of the world. His gaze is so direct and revealing that it almost looks like a contemporary mug-shot, and with all of a police camera's honesty, too. If there's ever a face that makes a direct connection to late Regency/early Victorian England, then this is it. He's a character just begging for a writer to claim him and bring him to life.
Many thanks to D.C. Read for sharing this portrait and inspiring this post with his own blog on self-portraits.
Above: Self-Portrait by Samuel Palmer, c. 1824-25, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.