The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, an 1833 painting by Paul Delaroche, depicts Lady Jane Grey—”nominal queen of England for just nine days in 1553, as part of an unsuccessful bid to prevent the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor,” according to the BBC—just before the execution that closely followed the end of that nine-day reign. (Though “reign” suggests a greater legitimacy to her title than most would grant.)
There is something quite stagy about the setting; the heavy architecture in the background feels peculiarly close to the black-cloth-draped platform, which is itself quite shallow.
The attendants’ palpable anguish, the executioner’s quiet sympathy (the National Gallery calls him “impassive,” but the tilt of his head, the looseness of his grip on the axe, and the shift of his weight slightly towards her—as though he were moments from dropping his weapon and coming to her aid—look to me more like restrained sorrow), and Sir John Brydges’ gentle guidance all have the careful composition of stage blocking, as well.
Yet Lady Jane Grey’s meek hesitancy feels strangely plausible. Paired with her shiningly white undergarments—which, though devoid of sleeve supports and crinolines, could more easily pass for modern than the detailed historical dress of those surrounding her (or even than her own outer dress, now discarded in the arms of the woman behind her)—that plausibility passes into a sort of transcendent timelessness.
She is a grand historical figure, the nine-day queen, on a stage to suit—and yet she is also just a scared sixteen year old, moments from her untimely death.