The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is an oil painting by Paul Delaroche completed in 1833. It is currently housed in the National Gallery in London. The painting portrays, erroneously in some regards, the moments preceding the death of Lady Jane Grey, who, on July 10, 1553 was proclaimed Queen of England, only to be deposed 9 days later and executed in 1554. Jane is sometimes known as the “Nine Days’ Queen” due to the brevity of her reign.
Lady Jane Grey was the grand-niece of Henry VIII of England and cousin to his son, the short-lived Edward VI. After the latter’s death she was proclaimed queen, being given precedence over Henry’s daughters, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth. Two weeks after the death of her brother, Mary, who had the support of the English people, claimed the throne, which Jane relinquished, having reigned for only nine days. Jane, her husband Lord Guilford Dudley, and her father, were imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of high treason. Jane’s trial was conducted in November, but the death penalty handed to her was temporarily suspended. In February 1554, Jane’s father, who had been released, was one of the rebel leaders in Wyatt’s rebellion, and on February 12, Mary had Jane, then aged 16, and her husband beheaded. Her father followed two days later.
Delaroche painted the subject of Lady Jane’s execution in 1833, nearly 300 years after the event, drawing upon contemporary historical sources to help him portray it accurately. Delaroche had built his reputation in the Paris salon with large, realistic portrayals of famous events from the previous few centuries. Despite the artist’s familiarity with the painting of historical narratives, there are aspects of the painting which are inaccurate.
The painting depicts the moment that Jane, blindfolded, is being assisted to lay her head upon the block for the executioner. She is being assisted by a man who is identified as John Brydges, 1st Baron Chandos. Chandos was a Lieutenant of the Tower at the time of Jane’s execution. While imprisoned in the Tower, Jane was attended by ladies in waiting, one of whom was the nursemaid of her infancy. Two ladies in waiting are depicted in the painting, showing their grief at the event which is about to take place.
The execution actually was conducted in the open air, in a part of the grounds of the Tower of London that is known as Tower Green, and where Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had been executed. The painting indicates either that Delaroche was not familiar with this aspect of the event and has constructed the location according to his historical knowledge of other such events, or that he chose to take a great deal of artistic license. In the picture, the execution is taking place upon a raised wooden platform similar to those on which executions of royalty and nobility had taken place in the French Revolution. The edge of this platform can be seen, draped with a black cloth, across the foreground of the picture. At the rear of the pictorial space the handrail of stairs descends, and the tops of two weapons indicate the presence of guards. Delaroche was presumably aware that the Tower of London was founded by William of Normandy. In the painting, two stout Norman columns with cushion capitals, a blind arcade, and a large chevroned arch create a backdrop indicative of the antiquity of the site. However, the buildings within the Tower of London span the reigns of many monarchs. In fact, the execution took place outside the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, which was constructed not at the time of William the Conqueror but by order of Henry VIII, and therefore in a style postdating that of the architecture in the painting by nearly 500 years.
It is difficult to ascertain by the setting and the lighting whether it was the artist’s intention to create the impression that the scene was taking place outside a building or in an interior. The architectural features shown can occur on both interiors and exteriors of Norman buildings. The darkness of the upper part of the painting is suggestive of an interior, while the light that bathes the central figure is daylight. Ghislaine Kenyon, Head of Education at the National Gallery, commented on the sense of foreboding that the darkness was intended to create.
The intensely dark areas that occupy a large proportion of the painting’s surface play a big part in the drama. Not only is the shadow of the upper section of the painting black, so also is the cloth that covers the platform, the dress of one of the ladies, the cloak of Baron Chandos and the sleeves of the executioner. Three garments form accents of warm colour, the brown dress of one of the ladies, the orange fur of the Lieutenant’s collar and the blood-red hose of the executioner. The colour of Lady Jane’s red-gold hair is picked up in the straw beneath the block. Against the darkness, Lady Jane, with her pallid flesh, her white bodice and satin petticoat, makes a splash of light. The artist seizes the eye of the viewer by placing the most intense patches of white on Jane’s blindfold and the area of her skirt just between her outstretched hand and the sharply defined edge of the block.
Delaroche has used many small details in telling the story and increasing the dramatic and emotive quality of the painting. The figures play their parts like actors through the expressions and gestures of grief and despair of the two women, the almost fatherly tenderness with which the Lieutenant of the Tower assists the blindfolded girl to take up the required position and the displeasure in the face of the executioner at the task that confronts him. Other narrative details include the loopholes on the block and the ropes with which Lady Jane will be bound to it and well-honed but well-worn edge to the axe. Kenyon points out that the clean straw, commonly placed near the site of an execution to soak up blood, and the white dress were devices used by the artist to make the observer suppose what would happen to them next.
The painting was made after the July Revolution of 1830 which deposed Charles X of France, the last of the French Bourbon monarchs. Charles X’s brother was Louis XVI of France whose throne was “usurped” and who was executed during the French Revolution. It is also redolent of the execution of Marie-Antoinette. Unsurprisingly, the emotive painting caused something of a sensation. The painting was highly popular in the Paris salon, where it was first showcased in 1834.
It was originally bought by Anatole Demidov, 1st Prince of San Donato as part of the Demidov collection. It later came into the possession of Lord Cheylesmore, who bequeathed it to the Tate Gallery in 1902.
The painting was thought to have been destroyed in the disastrous Tate Gallery flood of 1928 during the 1928 Thames flood, and was only rediscovered in 1973 by Tate Gallery curator Christopher Johnstone. He was writing a book on the British painter John Martin and going through the damaged canvases remaining from the flood in search of a missing painting by the artist. He found the Martin (albeit in very poor condition) rolled inside the Delaroche painting which was in perfect condition and transferred to the National Gallery where it should have gone when the national art collections were rationalized following the establishment of the Tate Gallery.