On 12 February 1554, the 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey was brought to the green in the Tower of London to be beheaded. After blindfolding herself, Lady Jane found herself unable to reach for the executioners block, crying out, “what shall I do? Where is the block?” After Sir Thomas Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower, guided her to the block, she lay down her head and the axe fell in one clean stroke.
Lady Jane’s crime was high treason. Following the death of King Edward VI on 6 July 1553, she reigned for nine days as Queen of England. This was cut short when she was deposed by the faction supporting Edward VI’s half-sister and heir, Mary Tudor. Lady Jane was accused of illegally assuming the title and the power of a monarch, proven by a number of documents which had been signed “Jane the Quene”.
This grisly episode of Tudor history ignited the imagination of one of the most popular French painters of the early 19th century, Paul Delaroche. Here’s how his 1833 painting, ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’, made use of doom and melodrama in its depiction of the infamous incident.
A dramatic retelling
Delaroche created the theatrical life-size oil painting ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ in 1833. He reimagined the event in a dark Romanesque interior, and chose to capture the tragic moment of Lady Jane’s struggle to find the executioner’s block, relying on the guidance of Sir John Brydges.
Lady Jane is the central focus of Delaroche’s painting. The bright sheen and radiant whiteness of her satin petticoat gives her an angelic, ethereal quality against the oppressive gloom. This gives the painting an air of theatricality, as if lit by harsh spotlights on a stage. To add to this illusion, none of Delaroche’s figures acknowledge the viewer, and nothing (apart from the straw laid down to soak up the blood) comes between the viewer and the events. The smooth finish and lack of visible brushwork also add a degree of realism.
This illusion may have been inspired by popular entertainment in French theatres, the tableau vivant or ‘living picture’. These were a theatrically lit display of costumed actors, with silently held poses, appearing in much the same way as Delaroche’s small cast of life-size figures on a raised platform.
The model for Delaroche’s Lady Jane was probably a famous actress, Mademoiselle Anaïs, who was romantically involved with Delaroche, and famed for her blonde hair and delicate figure.
To the left of the painting, a lady-in-waiting has slumped to the ground with her mistress’ outer clothing in her lap. Another lady-in-waiting stands behind her, turning to face the wall and unable to watch. Both of their necks are highlighted, foreshadowing the terrible event about to unfold.
To the right stands the executioner, silent and passive as the tragedy plays out before him. In Delaroche’s preparatory sketches of 1832, the executioner was depicted as the figure of brute state authority – he was stockier and wielded a large broadsword. However, in the final version, his pose and facial expressions have softened, suggesting he has some degree of compassion.
A fascination with British culture
Delaroche’s interest in this episode of British history reflects a wider French fascination with English culture and society in the 1820s and 1830s. By 1834, Delaroche had visited Britain twice and painted several scenes of British history. In 1828, he painted ‘The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England’ and in 1831, ‘Cromwell and the corpse of Charles I‘. That year he also painted another violent episode from the Tower of London: the murder of the two young sons of Edward IV, the ‘Princes in the Tower’.
Delaroche’s focus on Lady Jane’s execution in 1833 would have also had another meaning for contemporary French viewers. The parallels between Tudor history and France’s recent bloody past were all too apparent, especially the fate of Marie Antoinette, who had faced the guillotine in 1793.
A mixed reception
The painting was an immediate sensation when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1834. The public enjoyed the intense melodrama and dramatic realism Delaroche had created, and crowds pressed forwards to gain close inspection. However, critical responses were less enthusiastic: many critics claimed it was overly theatrical and the composition was a copy of John Opie’s depiction of Mary Queen of Scots.
Despite the initial furor, the painting was much forgotten during the 20th century. It was long believed to have been destroyed in the Thames flood of 1928, and only discovered by chance in the basement of the Tate Gallery in 1973. It is now exhibited in London’s National Gallery, where it has become one of the gallery’s most popular exhibits.