The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche is one of the most famous paintings in London's National Gallery. Standing at a hefty 246 x 297cm, the painting dominates its display room in the Gallery. If you still can't find it, head for the hordes of crowds who always surround it. The painting's first exhibition was at the Paris Salon of 1834 and was later bequeathed to the British nation in 1902 by Lord Cheylesmore. It is currently hanging in Room 41.
Painted in 1833, the portrait depicts the execution of the young Jane Grey (1537 - 54) who was nominated by her cousin Edward VI to be England's next Protestant monarch. However, the Catholic Mary I, who had a greater claim to the throne (she was Edward's sister and Henry VIII's eldest daughter), had other plans. After reigning for only nine days, Lady Jane was deposed by Mary and was executed the following year. It is the purely tragic figure of Jane that keeps her memory alive in the British conscience - she was young, intelligent and a political pawn whose destiny was out of her control.
The painting shows a blindfolded Lady Jane about to be executed in one of the chambers of the Tower of London. She is being led to the block by Sir John Brydges who was Lieutenant of the Tower at the time. The executioner stands to the right of the painting and two grieving ladies-in-waiting are to the left. One of the women is on her knees, the other has her back to the audience, hands plaintively pressed against the wall in despair. Under the block is a mound of hay ready to soak up the blood of the young executee.
Paul Delaroche and Victorian Imagery
Paul Delaroche (1797 - 1856) was a French painter who loved historical epics. He was a well-known and relatively well-respected artist, exhibiting at the Paris Salons on several occasions. He was made a member of the French Légion d'honneur in 1828 and then became a teacher.
The scene of the execution was painted in 1833 and the reign of Charles X during France's restoration. Charles X fled France during the Revolution and spent much of his time in England until his family were restored to the French throne. This may explain why Delaroche chose a usurper as the subject of a major tableau displayed in France. It was Charles X's brother, Louis XVI, who was usurped and executed during the French Revolution. The sight of a usurper being executed must have appealed to Charles X.
The figure of Lady Jane Grey was resurrected in the Victorian era as a Protestant martyr - the innocent girl slaughtered by an over zealous Catholic monarch. This was the stuff that Victorian propaganda was made of. First and foremost, Lady Jane is wearing a white silk dress, is blindfolded, her skin is translucent, untainted, unwrinkled and unblemished; all these factors highlight her innocence, chastity and purity. The tragic figure of Lady Jane is further highlighted by the fact that she is plainly dressed whereas the other characters are wearing heavy, ornate Tudor gowns. The Protestant martyr image is only slightly undermined by the fact that the woman kneeling down is counting the Catholic rosary.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is a beautifully produced piece of work of oil on canvas but, to be fair, it is pure historical nonsense. It is true that Lady Jane was one of the five women executed in the Tower of London but, like her predecessors, she was executed in the open air, in the semi-private grounds outside St Peter ad Vincula Chapel in the Tower's grounds. Important figures were executed here to give them some privacy and less publicity, but there would have been more than four people present at the good Lady's execution. The Tower was a well-run community - there would have been guards, politicians, Catholic church clerics and enough staff required to run a small town such as ironmongers and smiths of all kinds. Also, it is unknown what colour dress Jane would have worn but it was almost certainly not white - she was a married woman. The painting also depicts Lady Jane with long, thick flowing hair - this would have been tied up to ensure that the execution went smoothly.
Despite its historical inaccuracies, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey stands out as a testament to the ability of a highly underrated 19th Century artist.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey was one of the painting's selected for an experiment carried out by the National Gallery. Participants in the experiment were asked to look at the painting for roughly 20 seconds. Their focus of attention was then monitored and displayed. The central focal point was of course the blindfolded face of Lady Jane Grey. The participants' gazes then fell down the length of her arm to the executioner's block, travelled to the right of the tableau to the axe itself and then onto the executioner's face. The figure of the Lieutenant was hardly scanned across. Of the two weeping ladies, it is the woman with her back to the audience who attracts most attention with most viewers studying the nape of her neck. Unsurprisingly, the executioner's well-defined genitalia, hidden by tights, also attracted a lot of attention. Is nothing sacred?
The National Gallery is on Trafalgar Square which is easily accessible by the main bus routes and the Circle, District, Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern lines of the London Underground. It's open from 10am - 6pm every day and has late opening until 9pm on Wednesdays. The Gallery also organises free tours at 11.30am, 2.30pm and 6.30pm on Wednesdays. There is a special signed tour for the deaf and special talks for the blind on the first Saturday of every month at 11.30am. All tours start from the Sainsbury Wing desk.
Admission is free.