The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
1833 by Paul Delaroche
The National Gallery
The stir this painting caused in its arrival to the National Gallery in February is not unjust. Impactful in both subject and size, it is not to be underestimated. The clarity of Delaroche’s painting, the crisp lines and illuminating quality of natural light, perfectly freeze the infamous scene. It appears as a perfected freeze-frame, the quality of the paint possessing an inexpressive exactitude despite the obvious drama of the painting. This somehow makes the emotion felt by the various figures more poignant, their faces and poses succinct and biting, each a painful struggle so exactly made out in Delaroche’s flawless brushstrokes. The two ladies in waiting collapse in grief; Lady Jane fumbles blindly for the gleaming block while the Chaplin guides her gently to it, his bulk enveloping her fragility; and the executioner waits, solemn, face bowed in regret, his axe laid by for the imminent deed. Colour too guides us through this painting, the executioner scarlet in intended blood, the Chaplin cloaked in the warmth of heavy orange, while Lady Jane is chillingly white. Her dress in diaphanous folds, her skin deadly pale, she appears ghost-like before she is even dead, a premature phantom with the weight of her penance.