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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 January 2006, 12:31 GMT
Looking for England
By David Cannadine

David Cannadine

A portrait of a half-Welsh king by a German painter is a classic icon of England, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly column.

This week, the media have returned with relish to the endlessly fascinating debate about Englishness - a form of national identity that is distinct from Welshness, or Scottishness, or Irishness or Britishness.

Renewed public discussion has been prompted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which has launched a project, entitled Icons - a Portrait of England, to try and find the most resonant symbols of Englishness. The culture minister, David Lammy, convened a panel of advisers, and they have come up with a preliminary list of the top 12 English icons.

Wallace and Gromit
Wallace and Gromit: English icons
They range across the millennia from Stonehenge to the FA Cup, and across the country from the Routemaster bus, which has now all but disappeared from the streets of London, to the Angel of the North, a recent, towering statue in Gateshead. And by including both the King James Bible and the SS Empire Windrush, they also pay tribute to England's Christian past and to its increasingly multicultural present.

Of course, there are plenty of other candidates for inclusion in this pantheon of Englishness, and the M1 and the miniskirt, along with pantomime dames and Wallace and Gromit, have already been suggested. But I was especially delighted that this first list included Holbein's magnificent portrait of King Henry VIII, one of the most famous pictures of a monarch ever painted.

I'm delighted about this for two reasons. In the first place, this portrait, of this person, by this artist, nicely illustrates just how difficult it can be to select symbols of national identity which are pure and unambiguous. Indeed, I'd like to think that may have been the very reason why it was chosen.

To be sure, Henry VIII was king of England, as was his father, Henry VII. But Henry VII was Henry Tudor before he became king, and he was a card-carrying Welshman, who had been born west of Offa's Dyke in Pembroke Castle.

As icons of Englishness, Henry and Holbein embody a vision of national identity which is more outward looking and cosmopolitan
This in turn means that Henry VIII was at least as Welsh as he was English. As for Holbein: he was born in the German city of Augsburg in 1497, he later moved to Basle in Switzerland, and he only reached England in his very late twenties.

So the painter was even less of an Englishman than the subject of his portrait.

If Norman Tebbit's cricket test could have been applied during the first half of the 16th Century, asking: "Which national team do you cheer?", Henry VIII would probably have been compelled to make do with Glamorgan as a surrogate for Wales, while Hans Holbein wouldn't have had a clue as to what the game was all about.

As icons of Englishness, Henry and Holbein embody a vision of national identity which is more outward looking and cosmopolitan than inward looking and isolationist, and that strikes me as being all to the good.

But there's a second reason why I'm delighted that this picture has been included in this first list of the Icons project, and that's because one version of it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, in London, which by agreeable coincidence is celebrating its 150th anniversary during this year.

Past and future

Before I go any further I must, in parliamentary parlance, declare my interest: I'm the chairman of the Gallery's Board of Trustees. So this is not an institution about which I can claim to be impartial: the gallery is a place of which I'm both very fond and rather proud.

But I can say that an anniversary such as this is the perfect occasion for considering how the gallery was founded as an expression of national identity and national self-esteem; how the gallery and the nation have evolved and changed together during the intervening century-and-a-half; and how they may be expected to continue evolving and changing as we take this opportunity to peer into its future as well as to revisit its past.

Henry VIII by Holbein

The precise anniversary date for the gallery's foundation is deemed to be 26 February 1856, when advance notice was given of a discussion that would take place on the subject in the House of Lords, which it duly did early in March that year.

Three figures played a major part in this formative phase. Lord Stanhope, who initiated the Lords debate, was a conservative politician, an historian of 18th Century England, and a trustee of the British Museum: someone whom we would now describe as belonging to the "great and the good".

The second was Thomas Carlyle, one of the greatest writers of the 19th Century, who believed passionately in the importance of individuals in influencing and determining events, and who in 1840 had delivered a series of lectures on Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History.

And the third was Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was by turns a Whig Member of Parliament, an administrator in South Asia, a poet and the best selling historian of his day.

It was these three people who set the tone and style and remit of the National Portrait Gallery, which was meant to encompass the whole of the British Nation, at least until the separate Scottish National Portrait Gallery was established in 1889.

The founding fathers believed that one important way to understand the history of the British nation was by looking at portraits of the people who had made that history. They also believed that by making such portraits available, the gallery would both inform and entertain a broad cross section of the British public: the word "outreach" was not then current, but the idea was already there.

Ruling elite

And the gallery's founders were concerned to recognise achievement across a wide range of human activities: partly out of patriotic pride, and partly to provide examples of distinguished and exemplary lives which others might seek to emulate.

As such, and in a somewhat understated way, the National Portrait Gallery was founded to celebrate national history, national greatness and national identity; and it was just these themes that were re-stated at the close of the 19th Century, when Leslie Stephen conceived and carried through one of the most remarkable publishing enterprises of all time: the multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography.

The creators of the National Portrait Gallery, and of the Dictionary of National Biography, belonged to the ruling elite of what was then the richest and most powerful nation in the world, so it's scarcely surprising that they believed that great men (and, just very occasionally, great women) made history, and that a disproportionate number of them came from these islands.

During the 20th Century, with the decline and fall of the British Empire, and as Britannia has ceased to rule the waves, it hasn't been so easy to maintain those beliefs.

At the same time, the impact of Marx and Freud has been to downplay the importance and the virtue of all individuals: Marx by insisting that collective human behaviour was much more important than individual human achievement, and Freud by insisting that most human beings are imperfect, and that even their greatest accomplishments are often the result of suspect motivations.

Icons of nationhood are important and complex and constantly mutating things
Add to that the rise of abstract, non-representational art, the impact of photography, film and television, and the constantly reiterated refrain that portraiture is dead, and you might be forgiven for concluding that the enterprise which Stanhope, Carlyle and Macaulay launched would be doomed to failure.

Yet the reality is that precisely the opposite has happened, and that the National Portrait Gallery has never been as popular a place as it is now. Its visitor figures are in excess of one and a half million a year, and since 1969, the trustees have been able to commission portraits of people during their own lifetime, which they had previously not been allowed to do.

This has transformed the gallery, and among those whose portraits have appeared on its walls in recent years are the celebrity footballer David Beckham, the military historian Sir Michael Howard, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, and the best-selling novelist, JK Rowling.

Together, they represent a greater variety of backgrounds and a wider range of achievement than was recognized by the gallery 100 years ago, and they are also indicative of the ways in which our ideas of national identity and national distinction have expanded and evolved - and are continuing to expand and evolve.

Unequivocally iconic

Icons of nationhood are important and complex and constantly mutating things - especially in our own time, when we are regularly being told that the nation state is on the way out, as globalization sweeps all before it.

Yet as the heirs to a century which witnessed not only Hitler and Stalin, but also Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, it's surely premature to write off the influence of individuals in national - and international - history.

As Anne Boleyn knew to her cost, Henry VIII certainly had plenty of influence. But he did not use it all for good.

He was far from being a wholly admirable man, and he was far from being a wholly English man. Perhaps that's why he deserves to be on the first list of national icons.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Just as Henry VIII was "at least as Welsh as he was English", Stonehenge is built with Preseli Blue Stone from Pembrokeshire. It was built in an age when there was no concept of 'England' or 'Wales', just one island, where the inhabitants spoke Brythonic, the precursor to modern Welsh.
rosi thornton, Cynon Valley, Wales

Britain. I live in Britain, my family come form all parts of the country. I can't divide myself into Welsh bits, Scots bits, English bits etc. Not to mention my Swiss and Portugese heritage. Something similar is true of pretty much everyone if you go back more than a century or two. I want to see Britishness celebrated, not Englishness. Please let us not have this old tribalism encouraged further.
Pete, Caernarfon, Gwynedd.

Interesting idea, but I'd say that Henry VIII was more English that Welsh, despite his blood. It was he who came up with the law which included the Language Clause, afterall.
Nia, Aberystwyth, Wales

Once again we see an example of how misplaced popular concepts of nationality are. We accept fictionalised, popular imagery as gospel, ignoring that our history is much more complex, and filled with grey areas. 'Good guys' turn out to be not so good, Englishmen turn out to be Welshmen, and 'patriotic Scots' speak French as their mother tongue. We need perceptive historians like Dr Cannadine to remind us of how naive (and dangerous) our fixed notions of 'national icons' really are.
Steven Kelly, Renfrewshire, Scotland

Surely the greatest icon of England is not quite knowing what England is?
David, wales!

I make a living dressing up as Henry VIIIth visiting schools. I am also "typically" English - quarter Welsh, quarter Scottish, mostly English, some French and Belgian chucked into the mix as well. If I was a dog I would be a mongrel. Thank God I am a King!
Mike Farley, Crewkerne, UK

As an aside, although Henry was a 'card-carrying' Welshmen, he sponsored the decline of the Welsh language, and enforced the use of English in all civil courts within Wales. He was responsible for the Act of Union (not to be confused with the later one referring to Scotland) and in effect, subsumed Wales into England.
Mark Walker, Newport, S. Wales

Unfortunately for Dr. Cannadine's theory Henry VIII was an Englishman first and formost: Henry was the monarch that made England an independent nation from Rome and his suspicion of the Roman Catholic clergy for their allegiance to the Pope outdid anything Lord Tebbit has said about cricket; Henry executed many people for their loyalty to Rome.
Nicholas, London, England.

What a splendid article! I was distressed to hear about Gordon Brown's quest for a national day to celebrate Britishness. But what a relief to read the intelligent thoughts of David Cannadine. We should not settle for some anodyne or bureacratic government analysis of what it is to be English. Instead we should rejoice in the wonderful diversity, ambiguity, hybridity and comstantly shifting nature of Englishness. As an Englishman living near the city of brotherly love I know that icons do not need to perfect: The Philadelphia Liberty bell is, somewhat ironically, cracked. I can think of no better imperfect icon for English identity than a serial divorcee who created an one of England's best and most enduring institutions: the Church of England.
Rev Dr Guy Collins, Huntingdon Valley (near Philadelphia) United States

Yeah Dave, Had you lived at the time I bet you wouldn't have told Henry that he was half-welsh to his face.
Ian, England

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