The university portrait

Martin Bean, former vice chancellor of the Open University

A university is the people. Sometimes it is possible to confuse the buildings as being the university, but it’s not. It’s the people.

One way that we have tried to remember this is by linking people to the buildings – we name them after people, sometimes we name whole universities after people. One of the other things we do is to have portraits of people around the place.

The first university portraits I remember were the photographs of professors that lined the corridor leading to the philosophy department at Leeds. Small, and in black and white, these were fairly modest reminders of the men who had gone before.

The contrast with the portraits in the Council Chamber couldn’t have been more marked. Here the University had vast canvases of former Chancellors, Pro Chancellors and Vice Chancellors looking wisely down on the deliberations. These portraits were a study in the various forms of dignified seriousness.

Hubert von Herkomer, 1st Marquess of Ripon, KG, President of Yorkshire College (1882–1904), and First Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1904–1909), 1909, oil on canvas. Image © The University of Leeds Art Collection
Hubert von Herkomer, 1st Marquess of Ripon, KG, President of Yorkshire College (1882–1904), and First Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1904–1909), 1909, oil on canvas. Image © The University of Leeds Art Collection

The first Chancellor, the Marquis of Ripon, appeared out of the dark, the light picking out his vast Victorian beard and the gold lace on his gown. Back then the latest Chancellor, the Duchess of Kent, was a complete contrast. She was in a landscape, bathed in light, looking serene. She was also 40 years younger than the marquis had been when he’d been painted.

To have a portrait hung in the university is a high honour, and in most universities these can be found in the corridors and committee rooms of power. Nowadays these are commissioned, but some portraits have arrived through other means.

An enthusiastic public meeting was all for having a statue made of George Birkbeck in honour of his work in founding the mechanics institute, but they were persuaded to settle on a painting instead. Visually, at least, Birkbeck is now upstaged by a striking portrait of Tessa Blackstone. Sometimes they arrive as gifts; the Examination Schools at Oxford has a collection of monarchs on display, such as Kaiser Wilhelm in his DCL gown.

Throughout our older universities, portraits are more widely distributed; the walls of colleges teem with former students and staff, demonstrating their breadth of accomplishments. The Bodleian has a formidable collection and, if like me, you have a preferred area to sit (if not an actual preferred seat) you can associate that with a portrait (I like to sit under that of Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland).

If you can’t get into the corridors of power, you can visit these pictures virtually; universities have uploaded some of their collections to BBC Your Paintings. Here you can track changes to vice chancellorial style – in Southampton’s portraits John Roberts was the first to shed his gown (although it remains on the table) and Bill Wakeham is characteristically shown without his jacket, and with his i.d. card on a lanyard.

Another good way to see the work of current portrait painters is through the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Here you can find other representations of recent vice chancellors, often now depicted with buildings behind them. Shirley Pearce appears in front of two stained glass windows at Loughborough, Colin Campbell stands in front of the construction of the Jubilee Campus at Nottingham, and Sandra Burslem is on a glass bridge at Manchester Metropolitan, (all three painted by Alasdair Adams).

Sir Colin Campbell, Vice Chancellor, University of Nottingham 1988-2008 (c) Alastair Adams

Sir Colin Campbell, Vice Chancellor, University of Nottingham 1988-2008 (c) Alastair Adams

Here we have a nod back to the notion of people and buildings, a representation of university leadership.

Do you have a favourite? How would you depict a vice chancellor you’ve known? Who, in addition to the obligatory ones of vice chancellors, should be depicted in these portraits?

 

2 thoughts on “The university portrait”

  1. Ben henriques says:

    Interesting, however it is a shame that the artist’s names are not properly credited, especially as the copyright belongs to them. Is it possible to amend?

  2. alasdair49 says:

    There was a dinner attended by various VCs around 2006 where one of the number who was about to retire said he’d visited various universities to look at different portraits, in preparation for choosing his portraitist. He said that one of the portraits he looked at (no, I will not disclose where or of whom) was done in a very realistic style, to the extent that he, a medic, was able to see in the face the distinctive symptoms of alcoholic liver disease. He described these symptoms to the assembled party, many of whom were seen later in the evening anxiously scrutinising their reflections in the mirrors in the gents.

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