Death and the Maiden: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
When Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche (1797-1856) exhibited The Execution of Lady Jane Grey at the Paris Salon of 1834, it was a sensation. In the early 19th century, Delaroche was among the most popular French historical painters—during his lifetime his work met with greater acclaim than that of his contemporaries Ingres and Delacroix. Delaroche’s reputation languished in the twentieth century, and this powerful work—which in its day was lavishly praised and widely reproduced in lithography and popular prints—was believed lost, until it was rediscovered in 1974.
Magdalena and Willem van de Passe, Lady Jane Grey, 1620
Like others in post-revolutionary France, Delaroche had monarchist sympathies, and, seeing parallels to recent French history, developed a romanticized interest in English history and literature—particularly the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Sir Walter Scott.
Delaroche, who also painted portraits and religious subjects, was very interested in theater, which is evident in his large-scale, very literary, theatrical and often tragic-themed history paintings. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is no exception—it is filled with drama. Jane, blindfolded, on her knees in a light-saturated white dress, is gently led to the block by the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges. The executioner stands by, unmoved, while her ladies in waiting are overcome with grief. The straw surrounded the block where she is to lose her head will soak up her blood.
Lady Jane Grey’s brief life is yet another chapter in the bloody history of the Tudors. After only nine (or thirteen, accounts vary) days as Queen of England, Lady Jane Grey was removed from the throne and taken to the Tower of London to await execution. When she was beheaded six months later at Tower Green, on February 12, 1554, she was only 16 years old, and has since been mythologized as an innocent martyr to Catholic tyranny.
Jane’s cousin, Edward VI, died unexpectedly at age sixteen. Jane, a devout Protestant, and considered by Edward to be his lawful heir, was installed on the throne in an attempt to ward off the rising influence of the Catholic Church, an attempt which failed. Edward’s half sister, Mary Tudor, a Catholic (and illegitimate), had greater public support, and took her place as Queen. The painting above, celebrates Edward VI’s anti-papal stance and the successful re-establishment of Protestant rule. In the painting, Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, pointing to his successor, Edward VI—at whose feet the Pope lies crushed, under a book that says: “the worde of the Lord.”
Jane Grey’s short life was filled with difficulty. Her parents were cold and cruel and she took refuge in scholarship and her Protestant faith. She was very well-read and mastered Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Jane, pictured below in what is perhaps the only contemporary portrait of her, confided to her Cambridge tutor, Roger Ascham:
When I am in the presence of either Father or Mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yes presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways … that I think myself in hell.
Beautiful, intelligent and well-educated, Jane nevertheless met a tragic end—but she lives on in Delaroche’s theatrical and evocative masterpiece. The painting is currently the centerpiece of the exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, at the National Gallery, London, through May 23rd, 2010.