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Reflections on portraiture

...This specimen, however, creaks and wobbles at the lower end of the spectrum. The spatial arrangements are as unerringly wonky as they are ambitious. Consider the smorgasbord of problems this artist has set for himself... The architecture alone—the splendid alcove with painted ceiling decoration and arched windows; the niche, pediment, columns and pilaster—poses challenges that are worthy of the most ambitious painter, but are here, despite a tremendous struggle, if not wholly botched certainly not met with anything like the precision of an established master.

After it was established by legislation at Westminster in 1824 (193 years ago) the site chosen for the new National Gallery was Trafalgar Square, because you could drive there from Chelsea, Mayfair or St Marylebone, but it was also within easy walking distance for many far less affluent Londoners who lived not far east of there. Upon arriving, visitors would enter the National Gallery on an absolutely equal footing, free of charge, and experience there, each in his or her own way, the transformative power of great works of art.

European painters always enjoyed a good deal of latitude in the representation of angels, those asexual, bodiless, celestial regiments of God, so long as they were young and beautiful. But who can fail to be startled by an oil painting in which, over his canonical pair of feathery wings, a particular, named angel wears the attire of a swashbuckling, early seventeenth-century Flemish militiaman—a broad-brimmed hat, slashed sleeves, lace collar and cuffs, a sword, black stockings, crimson garters and matching bows on his shoes—and cheerfully takes aim with a big, spluttering harquebus, the ignited match cord carefully slung from his left hand? Why is he opening fire on the heavens? And, apart from the specialist, who at first glance would place this delightfully batty Baroque picture in the vicinity of Cuzco in the Viceroyalty of Peru, or indeed date it to the third decade of the eighteenth century?

It is now a little more than 178 years since the French Academy of Sciences was made aware of the invention of the daguerreotype process. That announcement was made in Paris on 7 January 1839 (a Monday). Accurate news of the invention was published in the Australasian Chronicle in Sydney in August of the same year. This was only forty years before the birth of Einstein. Notwithstanding earlier and, indeed, other concurrent mechanical fixed-image light-exposure experiments taking place on both sides of the English Channel, the date of January 1839 has long been regarded as the birthday of photography. Set against the broad horizon of history the period that has elapsed since then is relatively brief, yet it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world without photographs.