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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfkNLho2GYM
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?