The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, an oil painting by Paul Delaroche completed in 1833, hangs in prominence in the National Gallery in London. Last April I visited the gallery after a significant absence from London, and without a wrong turn, found my way directly to this painting, in fact, I’m nearly confident I could have found it blindfolded. And as I sat facing Jane, the years melted away and I was 19 again, seeing her for the first time. In 1998 I was mildly obsessed with the story of Lady Jane, largely due to the film starring Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes (in all their youthful glory). My older sister had introduced me to the movie after her return from the same study abroad program I was now attending. I visited the block at the Tower where she was beheaded and saw her name etched in a prison cell. The tragedy and passion of the story was perfect for a teenage student of the arts! However, my fondness for this painting now flows from another experience.
Upon returning from London in ‘98, I had a letter waiting for me. A fellow student had stayed a few days longer in London and told me she was writing to me as she sat in the national gallery, in front of the Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Apparently I had told her where to find it and recommend that she spend some time there. She proceeded to recount how the past four months had been challenging and lonely for her and thanked me for being her friend. Now, I am not patting myself on the back at all—I couldn’t recall any great, heroic humanity on my part. The past four months had been incredible for me, but also challenging and sometimes lonely. Her gratitude reminded me the power of simply being kind and including others.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey lost favor with viewers in the 20th century and was boxed up. In 1975 it made its way back into the light and I’m thrilled that it did; this painting facilitated friendship and gratitude. It now hangs to remind me, with Jane’s resplendent dress amid a despondent scene, that art can connect us in a profound way to our fellow human beings.