Staring out of a wall


He sits between a full-length portrait of King Charles II of Spain in all his royal finery, and a full-length portrait of an unnamed woman in nothing but her natural finery, so you would be forgiven for missing him, but I still remember the shock of seeing him twenty years ago. Miss Robinson took our A-level history class here to show us some culture, and when I walked into this room in the National Gallery, he looked so real that I almost thought he was sitting there in person.

He is Archbishop Fernando de Vald├ęs, and the great Velasquez painted his portrait, possibly after his death. Maybe that explains how threatening and slightly disconcerted he looks. He does not look like someone who has ever expressed joy in his life, which is sadly inappropriate for a Christian leader.

Returning to his gaze after a long absence, I was grateful for the power of artists and the generosity of a teacher who bought some ambivalent teenagers down to London to see wonderful things.