Blog : Posts tagged with 'portrait'


Great Spectacle Wearers From History

In which we consider Robespierre’s eyesight

Since briefly writing about Maximilien Robespierre the other week – particularly, writing about the biography Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr – I’ve had a couple of search hits from people looking for Robespierre information. And one, in particular, tickled me.

maximilien robespierre glasses

Drinking glasses with Robespierre etched on the side? Possibly. But, I assumed, about spectacles. Because Robespierre was famous for wearing spectacles. His whole life, he had terrible eyesight. He habitually wore glasses with green-tinted lenses, and often when speaking, a second pair over the top.

He was both short- and long-sighted, so everything he saw was slightly blurred. His glasses helped him focus, they filtered the harsh sunlight, and they were also props used to dramatic effect as he spoke at the tribune. (Scurr, p10).

Strangely, though, there are barely any portraits of Robespierre that show him wearing glasses. There were probably thousands of images of him made during his lifetime – his own study was practically papered with him – but in just about all of them his forehead and eyes are bare. There is one portrait showing them resting high on his forehead; and one rough sketch, made the day before his death, in which he’s wearing them.

Maybe it’s something about his depiction, often in an idealised fashion; but that doesn’t apply to all the portraits made of him by a long chalk. Maybe, though, it’s about his own personality. Robespierre had something in common with the modern far-left politicans George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan: a noticeable pride in his own appearance and clothing, bordering on vanity.* He always dressed well, as well as he could afford, and fashionably.** Maybe he didn’t want to be seen in glasses, even though he had to wear them all the time. It’s certainly a possibility. If he was around today, I’m fairly sure that he’d go for contacts.

* Apart from that, and their place on the far left, he had very little else in common with them, of course. On the one hand: Robespierre did achieve a position of high political importance in his lifetime. On the other, he’s unlikely to ever appear on Celebrity Big Brother, what with being dead, and all. Robespierre was often libelled in the press; his response was to start his own political newspaper. Court cases weren’t really an option at the time.

** The BBC’s rather unhistorical Saturday-teatime version of The Scarlet Pimpernel was particularly inaccurate here, showing him always in dour black outfits, when he was famous for his brightly-coloured jackets and embroidered waistcoats.

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On Camera

In which FP speculates

I’ve written before about disliking pictures of myself. What I didn’t mention is that I don’t always look very recognisable in them anyway – depending on who you ask.

The other day, I was sitting around in a pub when a woman came, sat down next to me, and said: “I’ve talked to you online, haven’t I?” And she indeed had – I recognised her as someone who I’d talked to a few months back on a popular free Internet dating site.* We got talking; and, after a while, about photographs. “Do I look like my photo?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, yes, you do,” she said, very affirmatively. “I spotted you straight away.”

Fast-forward to a day or two later, and, in the same way, I’m sitting and talking to a chap who I’ve talked to previously in a chatroom. He’s seen the same picture of me. We haven’t introduced ourselves – I recognised him, and I assume he recognised me equally. And then he says: “I thought FP was going to be here – I wanted to meet him.”

“Um…” I said, looking at him. He’s completely serious. “I’m FP. I thought you realised.”

Really?” he said. “You don’t look a thing like your picture.”

Then again, one regular reader of this place,** who I haven’t met, has told me that I look completely different in every picture of me she’s seen. And I have had random strangers come up to me and start a conversation with: “you don’t look anything like your photo, you know,” which naturally leads to: “how do you know it’s me, then? And who do you think I am anyway?” Maybe I’m just some kind of mysterious shape-shifter who doesn’t show up on film very well.

* The one that isn’t called “Yes, cherub”.

** Hi Miranda!

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In which we hate the sound of our own voice

Almost anyone you ask will tell you: they hate the sound of their own voice. I have a similar relationship with my own face.

This is at the top of my mind, because I received an email today, with a couple of photos of myself in it.* They look horrible, I have to say. No fault of the photographer, just that I look terrible anyway.

The common connection with the sound of your own voice is that just as you rarely hear your own voice as other people do, you rarely see your own face that way either. When I see myself in the mirror in the morning, it somehow doesn’t register, because it doesn’t look anywhere near as bad in my mind as it does in photographs. I’m convinced I’m not the only person who thinks this way, though. I’m sure there are relatively few people who are pleased with the appearance of their own face.

It makes me wonder about artists: specifically, artists who produce a lot of self-portraiture.** What drives them to do it? Is it a narcissistic obsession with their own appearance? Or, as I’d prefer to think, is it instead more the reverse, an obsession with controlling their appearance because they’re never satisfied with it.

* And lots of other people too, of course – from when we all went out on Boxing Day.

** I’m speaking as somebody who takes photos of their own face on nearly every roll of film, and nearly always hates them afterwards.

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