Simon Schama at Nottingham Playhouse

Review: Simon Schama – The Face of Britain


Simon Schama’s book – The Face of Britain: A History of The Nation Through Its Portraits has been described as a ‘meditation on the relationship between faces and history’. Schama’s talk at Nottingham Playhouse is less of a meditation and rather a luminescent verbal unfolding of art history revelations and wit. Throughout Simon Schama utilises filmed extracts from his seven part BBC series as well as slides to satisfying effect.

The book from which his beguiling talk is drawn, could well have been re-titled The Fascinating Book of Facial Revelations. Indeed Simon Schama’s rapt Nottingham Playhouse audience do indeed revel in his accessible intellectual brilliance.

In the contemporary world many are continually fixated by their mobile phone screens. Schama argues the importance of personal eye contact. Indeed, he delightfully confesses to staring at people on the Tube. “It’s about bravery of encounter… “ he writes in his book, “People are actually frightened of encountering someone else. We are continually disengaged.”

He cross references to the world of art. “Looking at a portrait of someone known or unknown pre-supposes a sort of engagement. They are the last self-contained form of art. You have always got a sitter and you have always got to think where the portrait is going to hang. Once it is situated you then have a messy engagement ensuing between what hangs on the gallery wall and the rest of the world buzzing around it.” Schama is a great storyteller and he believes that stories and perception are crucial to art.

The talk takes the audience throughout history and looks at portraits of historical figures like Churchill and Elizabeth I and the reality behind the image. Love and war are spoken of in equal measure and particularly moving are the painted portraits of soldiers in the Great War whose faces have received terrible injuries. A fascinating seventy minutes talk in the warm company of Simon Schama, a man of stupendous knowledge and possessing a wicked sense of humour.

Phil Lowe

Originally published by the Nottingham Post October 2015

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