Portraits on film: a matter of life and death

Yesterday we watched the Niven/Kim Hunter classic A Matter of Life and Death. Just for a moment in this scene at the WACs’ Mess in a requisitioned country house, the camera cut away from Niven and Hunter playing chess. Now I look at the still image I realise this was probably for a glimpse of the Betty Grable figure doing leg stretches on the chair, but something else had caught my eye.


On the wall above her on the left you can see this portrait, or a version of it.

Duke of Kent ?Amigoni

(c) Moss Green Auctions

The portrait came up for sale at Moss Green in Australia in November last year. An inscription identifies the sitter as Henry Grey Duke of Kent, but not the artist, and I wondered if it was by Jacopo Amigoni. The drawing he is holding looks like an unexecuted temple design by Thomas Archer, perhaps for the Duke’s garden at Wrest Park.

In the middle of last century – when country houses were facing extinction, and whole collections were regularly being knocked down for a song thanks to death duties – perfectly good paintings could end up as studio props. They were cheaper and more readily available than replicas. I’ve seen real Hudsons and Nattiers in the background of Hollywood wig-and-knickerbocker historicals, and a friend spotted a Lawrence in a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes. It can still happen now. Last November – again – Hungarian art historian Gergely Barki recognised Robert Bereny’s missing Lady with a Black Vase in the background of my Grandmother’s favourite film Stuart Little.

A Matter of Life and Death is a brilliant film – it has even been issued as a stamp


Image (c) Collect GB Stamps

– and it was ahead of its time for 1946. The use of technicolor is cutting edge, and the amphitheatre the size of a galaxy is a very modern conceit.


Film images (c) Powell and Pressburger, 1946 from Lukas Chase

It was even borrowed for the 2002 BT ad – ‘it’s called your philtrum.’ David Niven’s giant audience represents every person who’s ever lived. BT’s is everyone connected by the internet, and thus the sum of human knowledge. Farsighted for 2002.


[Not sure about the copyright here – I will ask an ad friend of mine]

So in the spirit of the BT ad, does anyone know who the other two portraits in that scene are, the late Elizabethan lady and the 1780s bloke? Over to you.

3 thoughts on “Portraits on film: a matter of life and death

  1. Thanks for this interesting post James. By coincidence I’m looking at the Duke of Kent’s iconography at the moment, and this portrait has in the past been attributed to Jervas. There are various other portraits of Kent and his immediate family which are certainly Jervas. I think the sketch drawing in his hand is of the Thomas Archer pavilion (c.1709-12) still at Wrest Park https://geolocation.ws/v/P/58012513/wrest-park/en.
    all best, Caroline.

  2. What a very fascinating story. Caroline and I must admit we have unwittingly commented on certain background portraits seen in films but without realising that they could be missing Old Masters.
    By the way have to agree with you, ‘A Matter of Life and Death ‘ is a great film .

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