Review: The Face of Britain by Simon Schama

I love this book – its a look at portraiture, and how it is defined by the relationship between the artist, the subject, and the public that eventually judges it (stick with me, it’s better than it sounds).

The whole thing is beautifully done – the illustrations are brilliant, and Schama loves the subject so much that his excitement and joy passes on to you.

Highly recommended – although I suppose you could get as much out of the accompanying BBC TV series if you fancied that instead.

Anyway, I’ve two favourite bits of this:

He’s got a whole chapter about why your new plastic British five pound note looks the way it does.

Churchill had a heart attack during the war – right before he had to travel to the US to speak to Congress or the Senate, and then on up to Canada to speak to their Parliament. A pretty tough schedule for someone supposed to be recuperating you’d think.

Anyway, Churchill survives all this, and heads out of the Canadian parliament to what he thinks is a lunch, only to be met with a bank of photographers and their bright lights (more stress!).

He is livid. His face curls up, he refuses to pose, gets a drink, lights a cigar.

Except you’re not supposed to smoke in this room (but Churchill isn’t having any of that, he’ll smoke wherever he wants). So a photographer, bold as you like, saunters over and yanks the cigar from his mouth and stubs it out, backs away, as Churchill turns to him scowling…

And at that very moment, the photographer snaps his shutter:


It’s an iconic photo that says “never surrender” and was used around the world – you’ve seen it before, right? You’ll recognise it from the new fiver:


Neat, eh?

My other favourite bit is that I met Simon Schama when he’d finished writing the Face of Britain, and he said he’d try to persuade his daughter to name her unborn child Thaddaeus. He was wearing leather pants when he promised me this.


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