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In Our Time newsletter: Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People

Friday 21 October 2011, 17:36

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM

Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People

I'm standing under lights in the close of Wells Cathedral.

The lights could be gaslights - there's that yellow glow. Frankly, I feel incredibly privileged. The massive West Front of this cathedral, the outbuildings, the houses around the close, the twilight in the West Country here, those long grey clouds and a lot of blue fading away in the sky.

What a place this can be.

And I've just come out of the cathedral having heard Choral Evensong which I made sure I caught. It is the most magnificent service in any church that I've ever been to, and this evening it was sung by young boys and men of the Wells Cathedral Choir, whom Gramophone have just voted as the best boys' choir in the world. So I'm full of - what? Hard to say really, but certainly an incredible sense of being alive in this country, in this place, at this time.

In an hour or so I'll be back in the Cathedral, at a lectern, talking about my latest book, but for now I'm just looking at this front, remarkably unscathed, although there are gaps where the vandals of previous centuries could get to it.

Okay. After the programme this morning, off to the cutting rooms to work on the three documentaries I'm doing for BBC Two. Extraordinarily, because I was still thinking about the programme, I got lost in the side streets around Broadcasting House. It's a very difficult thing to do. I've worked at Broadcasting House, one way and another, since about 1962.

I thought I only got lost in a fog in Cumbria, usually, or to be more precise, most spectacularly with Chris Bonington on the top of Saddle on Boxing Day, when he nearly led a party of us to doom one misty afternoon.

After the cutting rooms I wandered around those back streets again, trying to lose my bearings and have that rather childish feeling of being lost but knowing that you weren't really lost. It was quite nippy. Yet everywhere I went there were tables on the pavements laid out for, if I cared to count them, literally hundreds of Londoners, happy to sit in the nip and eat lunch in the sun.

And from there to the train to Castle Cary to Wells. Still looking at this front.

I would like to go on to talk about what happened after the programme and the fine poem that was produced there. But I'll have to stop now because I've left my notes inside and I will resume after the talk.

Meanwhile, one little thought. I've just heard some of the best singing I've ever heard, with a fantastic choir, in this indescribably beautiful building, but the people in the choir outnumbered those of us in the church. Why is it that we have one of the greatest assets in all world music in these cathedral choirs and only a handful or two of people turn up to listen to them? It's quite extraordinary. Now in for the rehearsal and then grab the notes and finish this piece.


Back in London now. I realise I was completely swept away by the sight of Wells Cathedral at twilight last night. But looking at that massive structure in the smallest city in England, it could have landed from space; so alien, so assured, so self-contained and so extraordinarily beautiful.

So I went back in and did my speech and came back to London very late and now have looked up the notes after the programme, the main one of which was a poem written at the time which Tim Blanning had wanted to read on the programme, but there wasn't time. It's by Auguste Barbier and it's about the painting:

"The truth is that Liberty is not a countess / From the noble Faubourg Saint-Germain / Who faints away at the slightest cry... / She is a strong woman with thrusting breasts / A harsh voice and a hard charm... / Who with her bronzed skin and flashing eyes / Takes satisfaction in the people's cries and the bloody throng."

Well, I think that's a tad nearer the courtesan or prostitute that Heine was referring to, and maybe in the end Delacroix was making a statement about the relevance of women of the streets to the Revolution, then or in the future.

Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time

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    Comment number 1.

    The West Front of Wells Cathedral is surely a wonder. I walked the West Mendip Way one summer's day, from Uphill on the Atlantic to Wells and stood on the green in front of those sculptures feeling like a pilgrim. But the strongest sense awe was a few winters ago: after a family Christmas, wife and I escaped to Wells where we were lucky enough to get a room immediately opposite the Cathedral. The sight of the illuminated West Front was so uncanny that it was a relief to pull the curtains.

    Stephen Moore

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    Comment number 2.

    This was a really interesting programme and good to hear a discussion about a painting in its historical context. I guess there are thousands of paintings a similar treatment could be given to but how about one on Turner or Blake?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    He was trained in the formal neoclassical style of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, but he was strongly influenced by the more colourful, opulent style of such earlier masters as the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and the Italian painter Paolo Veronese. He also absorbed the spirit of his contemporary and countryman Theodore Gericault, whose early works exemplify the violent action, love of liberty, and budding romanticism of the turbulent post-Napoleonic period. Gericault’s famous Raft of Medusa gave inspiration to the form of Liberty Leading the People,having the same double pyramidal form and depiction of bodies,stripped and naked.He had also done his own Barque of Dante,depicting semi-clad figures.Delacroix’s semi-cladfemale Liberty comes from his Greek masterpiece the Ruins of Missolonghi.The Massacre of Schios shows,as with all Romantic masterpieces, an actual event,expressing the Byronic dream that Greece might be free. Revolutionary sentiments that had gone underground under the restored Bourbon monarchy,could still show themselves in sympathy with other victims of oppression when Charles X provoked a revolution.Liberty Leading the People,also refers to a precise event,the Trois Glorieuses of 27th,28th and 29th July 1830,showing the young romantics still felt the glow of 1789.Indeed the Republican Army was commanded by one of the leaders of the original revolution.Napolean’s final defeat in 1815 was followed by the Bourbon Restoration of Louis XVIII then by Charles X. Delacroix was anti-Republican,but nostalgic for his hero Napolean.The tricolore,red,white and black flag gives this away in Liberty Leading the People,carried by Liberty and is on the Towers of NortreDame.

    Delacroix was the foremost romantic painter described by Baudelaire,friends with Chopin and Georges Sand.He is seen as the arch rival of Ingres neo-classical line, emphasising movement,dynamism and colour,though interested in Poussin,the Academy,the classical tradition,selling all his work to royal patrons.He is anti- bourgois,finding in Arabic cultures the colour and exoticism they lacked.The
    picture with Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap shows Liberty surrounded by all classes(except the bourgeoisie) leading them out of the picture, over a pedestal of corpses,the figures looming above us,the picture overflowing its frame,Liberty dominant,with two naked breasts.She has been abstracted from Greek statues,wearing a Greek tunic, allegorical of the Republic on the barricades.She has no name and no personal history. Republican female images had formerly been chaste,modest,she is brawny, dirty,a courtesan.This is a

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    (my missing part:-)This is a tribute to the self determination of the French people,but Delacroix was a dandy,an artistic individual andfeared the mob.Although his painting is briefly displayed,it is put away due to its dangerous message.After Charles fled the country he is notreplaced by a Republic.The prosperous middle class prefer to fall back on his cousin,Louis Philippe,more liberal and bourgeois,still authoritarian and unpopular.It takes 18 more years and another revolution to form a Republic.The people in the painting are seen as a mob by the 1st audience,armed to the teeth.

    Although details show its 1830,there is a hint of the Terror,the guillotine of 1794,an ambiguity of message.Instead of emphasising the uprising, Delacroix prefers to express the positive idea Liberty inspired.Delacroix is relieved when order is restored by Louis Philippe. The painting became more famous than the event it portrays. The painting escaped the artist’s intent. He was payed handsomely(3000frs.), received the legion d’honneur,and more commissions.A Republic would have deprived him of his aristocratic clients.The painting proved too radical for its time. Shown in 1855 when he had become part of the establishment, finally it made the Louvre in 1874.Did Delacroix paint it to flatter Louis Philippe?At the top of the picture is the tricolore with the 3 colours,red, white and black, reflected throughout the painting. Louis Philippe had just reinstated it as a national standard, representing a balance of power between the king and nation.It is one of the few programmatical pictures of revolution to be a work of art,but it is far from being one of his best works and he never again allowed his art to be influenced by contemporary politics.He had contempt for the age in which he lived,for its crass materialism and complacent belief in progress;and his art is almost entirely an attempt to escape from it.Into subjects of romantic poetry, Shakespeare,Walter Scott, Byron, who inspired Delacroix, with whom he shared a strong self- identification with the "forces of the sublime", of nature in often violent action.,”the roaring of lions and the destructive sword.”However being a liberal Bourbon he didn’t escape from civilization and all its benefits. Like Veronese a great influence on early Cezanne.

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    Comment number 5.

    This was a real eye-opener of a programme and made you realise how much you can pack in about society,politics,styles in art,when you discuss painters and painting.You've done it before with Vasari, Munch, Raphael,where you concentrate on individual works.Can we have some more like this?Cezanne is well over due,perhaps the last of the titans, laying the foundations of Cubism,with his "sensations next to nature".


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