- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

The Brits hit America this month, with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip marking the 400th anniversary of Jamestown — where their ancestors founded America’s first English settlement — while also celebrating their country with “Great Britons: Treasures From the National Portrait Gallery, London” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Although it wasn’t exactly obvious, both events focused on human “vanitas,” the Latin word for vanity. The events, however, were different.

The queen, 81 — who has ruled England for 55 years — and Prince Philip, 85, her devoted consort, showed an unselfish, dignified kind of vanitas during their U.S. visit.

The vanitas of the exhibit’s 60 portraits from five centuries contrasts with that. Their painted self-importance and narcissism are inescapable. Usually, they were produced as tributes to people who thought of themselves as important, believing in their own abilities and attractiveness.

The exhibit begins with Queen Elizabeth I and several female monarchs, but men come to the fore with international politicians, academics, inventors, explorers, poets and writers. Englishmen are not forgotten, as in a photograph of painter David Hockney, a 1960s image of the Beatles and a portrait of Mick Jagger.

Earlier in the exhibit are the moving oil-on-canvas George Gordon Byron, an impressive Winston Churchill — with familiar cigar — and the Spanish and English impressively negotiating at the “Somerset House Conference.”

Some of the show’s most beautiful women fill the first gallery. The enormous Queen Elizabeth I — in glistening silks, pearls reaching past her navel, and jewels — reveals her singular status.

By contrast, the tiny portrait of Queen Mary I could be voted best in show. Slightly leaning to the left, she engages viewers’ eyes with just a hint of a smile while holding a Tudor rose.

The most impressive husband-and-wife view is Sir Joshua Reynolds’ David and Eva Maria Garrick. Actor David Garrick gives a monumental presence to the work, while his wife relaxes in what looks like a mountain of white lace.

The full-length portrait of Dame Judi Dench by Alessandro Raho is one of the most impressive of the contemporary efforts. She is dressed in everyday clothes against a white-gray background; her face appears both masklike and individualistic.

Although the show isn’t big on facial expression, the portrait of Charles Robert Darwin is superb. He confronts his viewers frontally in black coat and hat, his hair and beard a curly white.

Darwin was old when this was painted 24 years after “On the Origin of Species” was published. His suffering from trying to reconcile Christian respectability with his radical ideas is inescapable.

Here’s real emotion, an unforgettable humbleness never touched by vanitas. If only there were more.

WHAT: “Great Britons: Treasures From the National Portrait Gallery, London”

WHERE: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, through Sept. 3.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: www.npg.si.edu

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