(b. 1797, Paris, d. 1856, Paris)

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Oil on canvas, 246 x 297 cm
National Gallery, London

Anglomania was in fashion in France in the 1820s and 1830s. Interest in British history, fuelled by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, was further stimulated by parallels drawn between recent events in France and the turbulent accounts of Tudors, Stuarts and the Civil War. The pictorial representation of British history may have been pioneered in Britain, but it was the Frenchman Paul Delaroche who gained a European reputation with the grand scenes drawn from it which he exhibited at the annual Paris Salon between 1825 and 1835. Popularised through mass-produced engravings, these set pieces, combining ostentatious antiquarianism with the pseudo-realism of bourgeois melodrama, in turn influenced the painters of national history in mid-Victorian Britain.

The painting depicts the last moments on 12 February 1554 in the life of the seventeen-year old Jane Grey, a great granddaughter of Henry VII who was proclaimed Queen of England upon the death of young King Edward VI, a Protestant like herself. She reigned for nine days in 1553, but, through the machinations of the partisans of Henry VIII's Catholic daughter, Mary Tudor, she was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death in the Tower of London.

Delaroche, who based the painting on a sixteenth-century Protestant martyrology, has falsified the historical account the better to appeal to his contemporaries. Lady Jane Grey, a humanist-educated young married woman, was in fact executed out of doors. Attended by two gentlewomen, probably no less stoical than she, she resolutely made her own way to the block. She could not have worn a white satin dress of nineteenth-century cut with a whalebone corset, and her hair would have been tucked up, not streaming down over her shoulders. But a painting cannot be judged by the criteria of historical accuracy. Much more applicable to this particular picture are the standards of popular melodrama and tableau vivant.

As on a stage, the heroine gropes her way towards the audience, gently guided by the elderly Constable of the Tower whose massive, dark, male presence acts as a foil to her own. A spotlight trained on her from above complements the dim stage lighting, reflecting from her immaculate dress and the straw which spills over into the front row of the stalls. The emotions of each actor are carefully delineated and distinguished, and we are left in no doubt as to the character of each even of the lady in the background who turns her back on the terrible sight.