Small paragraphs summarized life stories. Eyes carefully painted told of the emotion, the drama the story of the life evoked. The National Portrait Gallery holds tales. I felt almost like a princess, weaving through the halls of a castle, inspired by all who went before me. There was the “poet” the “Queen” the “clockmaker” the “architect, painter, and landscape designer” and “The inventor of the bank holiday” From “Secretly married” to “executed” to “helped escape” their actions were thrilling. And there I was, wandering between portraits, soaking in the intrigue, and jotting down notes on the “Welcome to London” brochure I picked up as soon as we left the plane. I share some of the stories I found most grasping:
He was the knave of hearts. This was no regular card deck. It described the Popish plot. This card dates back to the reign of Charles II. With the card’s companions, it illustrates the great fire of London, the horrid Popish Plot, executions, and the murder of Sir Edmonbury Godfrey. The description on this particular card read “The Irish Ruffians going for Windfor” The lovely writing did not match the overall gruesome message. The “ruffians” looked dangerous but dashing as their horses raced toward the castle. Trees loomed overhead. Clouds danced under the rectangle pronouncing this card as a knave of hearts. The Popish Plot was an invention. It was a large game of pretend—a game just like one played with cards. Except it was not a game to many families; people were executed, and more than twenty-four died. The nation spiraled into a web of panic and a game of hunt. Today, it remains largely unknown, just another fact of this long history. But “the bloodiest hoax in history” has a few lingering traces. Like a deck of cards with a queen of spades and a knave of hearts.
Flora Macdonald saved a life and with it, many religious traditions. She, though as ordinary as could be, looked as regal in expression as the Queens in the Tudor room. Her navy blue dress billowed around her. In her hand, she clutched a letter sealed with red. The red grabbed my eye and stirred questions. What was in the letter? Who was the letter for or from? Stormy clouds circled her head as her boat traveled unsettled waters. The sun set ahead of her. “She helped Prince Charles escape to the Isle of Skye” I read. The prince dressed and acted like her maidservant for safe passage. Sometime in the span of years between 1722 to 1790 this simple girl made a huge and lasting impression. And now her portrait hangs among the great.
In a little silver box, almost unnoticeable, rested a picture of Jane Austen. It was real and comparatively simple, just like the beloved author. Her younger sister and most trusted confidant sketched the picture. In a 4 1/2 in. x 3 1/8 inch frame, Jane seems to still muse over all who come to visit, the light flickering on then off, on then off throughout and she sits, her penciled lips still pursed in thought.
Queen Elizabeth I’s portrait hung beside Mary Queen of Scot’s. These women never met, but they wrote to each other. The cousins did not trust each other. Elizabeth allowed for Mary’s execution. Elizabeth led one of Britain’s greatest eras. And so she is shrouded in a gold frame. Her dress is gold. Her face is still beautiful today, when the standards of beauty have changed. Mary’s picture shows her in black. Her frame is black and simple. Though her portrait is about the same size, done at about the same time, her face looks older. She looks as if she has struggled all of her life. And she had. Mary wore the rosary around her neck. Elizabeth held the scepter.
“Some Officers of the Great War” loomed large. They had no idea what they were about to see, what they had seen. They looked uniform in thought and ideas as they planned the fate of the world, or so they must have felt.
Modern Princes Charles and Henry hang contemplating on one wall. They alone draw visitors. People are still impressed with the modern intrigue in royalty. These are portraits of modern people, only a few years older than us.
These portraits, and the thousands of others, begged my attention. They pulled me into their story. They made me wonder what my portrait would look like. If it hung in a museum, would I be depicted as happy, sad, carefree, burdened, ruffian, angel, slave, or savior? And how would my life be summarized, if it was only written in a paragraph? Would the paragraph contradict the portrait?
I wonder if any of these great people consciously thought of me, the looming future viewer, when they posed for their portrait. Did they ponder long about what I would think? Some most certainly did. Having studied Queen Elizabeth I’s writings, I know that she considered the future’s impression of her. Yet would this be classified as wise, or prideful?
It’s a battle—consciously reviewing the weight of our actions versus acting consumed by thinking of what other people think. It’s a battle I so often fight, but I don’t pretend to even partially grasp. There are so many ways the mind can pull in a single moment. Maybe this is why I stare at portraits. They show people who fought these same battles. Some seemed to come out on the winning side. Some are ruffians. Some were overcome, others overcame evil with good. We study portraits for what we see in ourselves. In our own stories.
Maybe the secret is to not wonder at all what a paragraph would say. Maybe we should spend time learning from those who have already faced these battles. And once we have studied, we should live. Live thinking of the people we impact now instead of in the future. And more importantly, live and study and do everything for the glory of the God who saved us.
Maybe if I live in this manner, the daily portrait I present to everyone is one of eyes looking up to Christ. Passersby might even follow my gaze upwards to God. This life I live, each conversation I have, is itself a grand adventure. And maybe one day, if I live life without constantly thinking about it and pursuing it with pride, then maybe a memorial will read that I was a follower of Christ. But right now, I’m following the unspoken advice of royalty, ruffians, authors, and heroes and I am living and not thinking about that.