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Mother and Daughter in The National Portrait Gallery

March 17, 2010

They hang on opposite walls from one another. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. If they were alive, they would be staring at one another. I stood in the middle and looked back and forth, like I was at a tennis match, acutely aware that they never got to see each other, since MW died giving birth to M.S. Would they have recognized each other if some miracle happened and they met on the street?
They both have the same reddish hair. They both have wide foreheads. But Mary S. looks frail, more wand like, more sad than her mother. Mary W. looks softer, more full, though she was pregnant with MS when Opie painted her portrait. It did not feel fair that I could see them both, that here in this room their images are contemporaneous. Besides, it felt voyeuristic to be staring. I kept looking away.
On her wall, Mary W. is separated from her husband, Godwin, by an enormous portrait of Wordsworth, looking wrinkled and wooden, like a lake country tree. Mary Shelley is separated from her husband, Percy, by Byron, of all people. I thought that was appropriate since MS blamed Byron for letting Shelley go sailing the day he drowned.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 17, 2010 6:23 am

    I remember the National Portrait Gallery as a bizarre place. The contiguities of the paintings led to all sorts of strange speculations, as in these Wordsworth-Byron interruptions. Not to mention those walls packed with famous eyes, staring at me (or, like Hardy, ignoring me).

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