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The British Face

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Why is portraiture so captivating? Irish actress and theatre director Fiona Shaw, in association with London’s National Portrait Gallery, endeavours to find out in this two-part documentary.

Shaw interviews painters, photographers and caricaturists about the art of capturing the human spirit in a variety of mediums. Her quest stretches across everything from school photos to historic paintings of England’s royalty and paparazzi shots.

Why did monarchs like Richard II and Elizabeth I have their portraits made? Why, in an age drenched in digital photos, do artists continue to create portraits? And can works like Marc Quinn’s portrait of eminent geneticist Sir John Sulston, created using a strand of the sitter’s DNA, re-invent portraits for the twenty-first century?

Fiona Shaw looks at celebrity portraits made two hundred years ago by Sir Joshua Reynolds and today by fashion photographer Rankin, at tomb effigies and death-masks, at the searching paintings of Francis Bacon, and at Tudor miniatures and the pictures that we carry around on their mobiles.