Interpreting King John – Painting History.

Buchel, Charles A.; Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917), as King John in ‘King John’ by William Shakespeare; Theatre Collection;

History paintings first became popular in the 17th century but they were associated with classical history, the Bible and mythology rather than British history or more recent subjects. Gradually the genre expanded – inevitably scenes of battles began to become popular.

History paintings usually tell a story so they could also be described as narrative art. There’s also a degree of theatricality about many depictions of history – perhaps it’s inevitable given Shakespeare’s impact on popular interpretations of history.

So, today, meet King John – well meet Herbert Beerbohm Tree a Shakespearian actor portrayed by Charles Buchel. He certainly looks the part – wealthy and rather troubled…or possibly decidedly shifty. It’s entirely up to you.

Tree was also a manager and the man who employed Buchel for sixteen years providing him with illustrations for various aspects of theatrical advertising. King John was performed in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre 1899-1900. Apparently the production was noted for its rather spectacular scenery and costumes. Some circuits thought that it was too elaborate (I wonder what they would make of modern film productions). It was also the point at which fictional interpretations of history moved from stage and page to film – it can be viewed on YouTube here:

The question is, how do Shakespeare’s plays and their interpretation impact on our understanding of historical events and people? After all, it’s not just a retelling of history -or even educating us about the past- there is a much more emotive response.

And yes, for those of you who know me well, I can’t actually think of the historical persona of King John without summoning this version of him to mind… I apologise – I know it shouldn’t but it just pops into my head perhaps because it was my first encounter with the youngest son of King Henry II. It’s a thought – how many of you have an image of a historical persona in your mind that is not drawn from primary sources but from a fictional rendering? And how does it impact on the way you perceive that persons’s actions and impact on history?

One thought on “Interpreting King John – Painting History.

  1. King JOHN wrote Magna Carta laws to have the Barons sign it and so give a little more leeway to his nobles. History recorded a monster in this Kings description. I wonder if the Earl Of Oxford had any clue who John was when he wrote his play . Yes he could be cruel at times but in main he rather saved old England after his brother and that ransom drained us of any money as a nation had. John was not as smart as his father nor was he as brave as Richard or Jeffery but he was loyal to England only. In some ways he was brilliant in others very silly . Still was he a good King in keeping the peace and sorting the tax.Yes he was one of our best Kings . Only crime I see was he placed one of his enemies wives in jail and forgot all about her.She is said to have starved to death in her cell.Then that is more the work of her jailers than actions of a King. John has been mocked across the page of history for too long .He inherited a bankrupt throne. A peoples cheated out of millions trillions today and a big hero father and brother to live up to. John aimed to do all himself and made Britain rich in his time. Let us get at least one thing right about John He loved us English far more than we loved ourselves at that time

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.