Try on a codpiece

20th June 1997 at 01:00
THE PURSUIT OF BEAUTY: FIVE CENTURIES OF BODY ADORNMENT IN BRITAIN National Portrait Gallery

Michael Clarke looks at what people have done in the cause of personal beauty

The differences in ideals of beauty that separate Elizabeth I and Sir Philip Sidney in the Tudor period from Lady Di and Daley Thompson today may seem insurmountable, but it is very much to the credit of this enlightening and entertaining exhibition that it repeatedly makes you stop to think.

Farthingales, peascods and ruffs may be things of the past but the Elizabethan taste for red-dyed hair and blue-veined white make-up might be thought mild in comparison with the artifice pursued by punks and goths or the even more extreme tranformations brought about by late 20th century cosmetic surgery and drugs.

Organised by the National Portrait Gallery's education department and aimed at a non-specialist audience from infant age upwards, "The Pursuit of Beauty" is certain to be a great success with children. Appealing to the instinct in all of us to change our appearance, almost every chronological section of the show offers something to try on, whether it is a cod piece, wig, face mask, panniers, mouse-fur eyebrows, crinoline hoop or top hat with added whiskers. Taking on the look of another age draws attention to the means by which it was achieved and the all-important role of portraiture in its promotion.

We may flatter ourselves that our pursuit of the healthy body is free from such devices, but quite apart from hours spent in the gym and money spent on hairdressing and record amounts of cosmetics, even super models require the skill of a whole team of body stylists, art directors and photographers to look their best. The ingredients of a fashion shoot are not so very different from the elaborate corsetry, hairdressing and the pictorial skill of Thomas Lawrence that went into lending a semblance of the ideally lithe, youthful body to George IV's great bulk. To paraphrase Wilde, the natural look is a difficult pose to maintain.

During the past five centuries in Britain and the West, the most persistent inclination has been to improve upon nature and neither the exhibition nor the excellent, illustrated booklet (both free) ignores the repeatedly uncomfortable, unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening devices used to enhance our appearances.

The white lead and mercury used in cosmetics until the l9th century stripped away layers of skin, admitting disease, and it was only after Lady Mary Wortley Montague introduced inoculation from Turkey in the 18th century that black patches to conceal smallpox scars were no longer needed. The introduction of metal eyelets into Victorian corsetry enabled so great a constriction of the body that internal organs were damaged. Silicon implants and, some would add, tattooing and body piercing are only more recent examples.

Although not among the items visitors can try on, all are displayed, including George Washington's false teeth. And to dig even deeper beneath the surface of body adornment, the social, sexual, technical, medical and political factors determining the aesthetics of the body are all raised for discussion, making this an ideal exhibition on which to base cross-curricular school activities.

One possibility suggested by the NPG is to follow changing concepts of beauty out of this special exhibition to a "beauty trail" marked by 12 portraits throughout the permanent collection. But given its contemporary relevance, teachers and pupils will surely want to pursue the theme into different cultures and sub-cultures or the world of international advertising.

Until October 26. For further information telephone 0171 306 0055

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