The Royal Society's modern portraits collection has accumulated by the commissioning of a Presidential portrait at the end of each incumbent's five-year term of office. In this manner, Tom Phillips RA painted a portrait of Lord May of Oxford in 2005. However, interest in this aspect of the Society's collecting has broadened in the approach to the 350th anniversary in 2010, leading to several new acquisitions and commissions, some of which are noted here.
In 2007 the Society received three studies of leading twentieth-century Fellows, all preparatory sketches for portraits in oils by the Welsh artist and Royal Academician Allan Gwynne-Jones CBE (1892–1982).1 The subjects were the pharmacologist and then President of the Royal Society Howard Florey (1898–1968), the mechanical engineer and combustion engine specialist Harry Ricardo (1885–1974) and the Cambridge-based aeronautical engineer Bennett Melvill Jones (1887–1975).
Allan Gwynne-Jones's work appears in the Tate collections, the Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery in London. He trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, with an interruption for wartime service, including on the Somme (for which he was awarded the DSO). Most of his career was spent as Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, and he was a regular examiner. On his retirement from teaching in 1959, Gwynne-Jones had time to take on many portrait commissions, and the three studies are from this active period. The artist drew on manila envelopes originally sent to him by the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Boards. They bear the marks of the artist's studio, with oil splashes, scribbled aides-mémoires and fragments of old mounts crowding the pencilling, and these features add to the pleasure of each object. The ground is also a nice reversal of the popular rule that it is engineers and scientists who use the backs of envelopes for that moment of inspiration.
The works were donated in memory of Sir Brinsley Ford (1908–99), who kept very precise notes on his original purchases from the artist.2 He bought the study of Lord Florey (figure 1) in January 1971 and characterized it as a ‘very sensitive and splendidly battered working drawing saturated in oil paint … with the two bits of string at the top by which it was attached to some wall or to the easel.’ Ford could gain only fragmentary information from the artist on when each work was completed, but in the case of the Florey sketch the gap can be filled from Lord Florey's papers at the Royal Society, dating the work to 1962.3 The resulting oil painting became the property of the University of Adelaide, but there were significant differences between the two treatments. Florey's brother-in-law, Lord Cottesloe, commented: ‘I am much interested to see it, as will my sister Lady Florey be … . The drawing makes him look more formidable than the painting, & no doubt he could be.’4
The three sketches were an extremely useful addition to the Society's collection of twentieth-century art, which is lacking in this type of smaller work. More seriously, the organization has no real tradition of commissioning original works of living Fellows, with the exception of the Presidential portrait. Fellows are photographed at the time of their election, but this is an exercise in record-keeping rather than fine art. Much of the Society's planning for its 350th celebration has been centred on the idea that science and scientists have the power to inspire. Recognizing what a lost opportunity the present policy represented, the philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley approached the Society in 2007, generously offering to fund the production of first one, then two works; essentially to begin a collection of contemporary art in time for the 2010 anniversary.5
The first of Dame Stephanie's commissions was of the Web pioneer and computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee FRS. The importance and ubiquity of Berners-Lee's invention, the World Wide Web, as an information exchange and resource, together with his vision in waiving intellectual property rights on its inception, made this scientist ideally suited to the anniversary's inspirational theme. On the advice of Patricia Jordan Evans, Director of the Bohun Gallery,6 Dame Stephanie selected the painter Jennifer McRae for this work, looking to capitalize on McRae's subtlety and lightness of touch. McRae's portfolio already included a striking 2003 portrait of the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, a fine example of her work and a prominent exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection.7
McRae trained at Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen, and has become a regular exhibitor on the London art scene, for example at the National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Awards.8 She showed most recently with two large canvases in the 2009 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The Berners-Lee portrait was the result of seven sittings, each of two to three hours, during the early months of 2007. ‘My first challenge was how to portray this person in static form, whose mind visibly leapt from one subject to another as we ran through corridors and sprinted through libraries’, the artist commented, after a preliminary meeting with her subject.9
McRae's solution was a double canvas (figure 2): the inner work and formal portrait would show Berners-Lee in oils at full length. However, this would sit within a second canvas of paint and collage in which McRae would combine the intellectual content of its subject's work with the painter's journey in a flowchart of preliminary sketches, souvenirs and snatches of conversation. Once completed and installed, this nimbus from the information age would complement the gilded frames of the Society's existing portraits. The work was unveiled on 19 November 2008, with Tim Berners-Lee attending ‘in his other suit’, as he joked at the ceremony.
Dame Stephanie's second commission followed rapidly from the first, the subject being Professor Stephen Hawking FRS. If Berners-Lee's mercurial nature had proved a challenge for Jennifer McRae, then the very familiarity of Hawking, one of the world's most recognized scientists and a modern cultural icon, would pose very different questions to the next artist, Tai-Shan Schierenberg.
Schierenberg's artistic career began at St Martin's School of Art and the Slade. Although not exclusively a portrait painter, his work features in national collections, including the Tate Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, with well-received pictures of John Mortimer and Seamus Heaney.10 Hawking sat for the artist in Cambridge in necessarily brief sessions, and by December 2008 Schierenberg had not only produced a preliminary treatment of his subject, but the paint was also drying on two complete studies of the cosmologist.
The painting selected for the Royal Society (figure 3) was an almost square canvas with little extraneous detail. The professor's face is given energy and movement by thick, fluent brushstrokes. The result is a confident and imposing portrait that easily manages to convey a slight twinkle of amusement in Hawking's eyes.
Although the work was shown to Hawking at the Cambridge Centre for Mathematical Studies on 22 January 2009, pressure of engagements and then a widely publicized bout of ill health prevented a more formal unveiling until 25 November 2009. Hawking's presence at 6–9 Carlton House Terrace ensured that the event received national press attention in the UK.11 Matching Berners-Lee for self-deprecating wit, Hawking complimented the painting for being ‘like a picture of Dorian Gray … I just wish I will remain as good-looking.’
It is hoped that more paintings and works in other media will be acquired during 2010 as a result of the stimulus provided by Dame Stephanie Shirley. The Society now holds as many as 300 original artworks, a significant collection not only for international science but also for the study and enjoyment of fine art portraiture. There are many more scientists deserving of this kind of recognition.
↵1 A brief biography of the artist can be found in Allan Gwynne-Jones: a catalogue to a retrospective exhibition organised by the National Museum of Wales … (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 1982), catalogue no. 110.
↵2 For a brief biography, see ‘Sir (Richard) Brinsley Ford … ’ in Who was who 1996–2000, vol. 10, pp. 192–193 (A. & C. Black, London, 2001). Ford was a chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, a trustee of the National Gallery and a well-known director of, and contributor to, The Burlington Magazine.
↵3 Quotation taken from a provenance file retained by the donor's family (photocopy versions with the Royal Society provenance file). Letters pertaining to the sittings may be found in the Royal Society's Florey papers: HF/1/14/3/49/58, HF/1/19/6/26/151-159, HF/1/19/6/28/82, HF/1/19/7/28/9–13 and HF/1/19/7/30/105.
↵4 Private collection (copy with the Royal Society provenance file). Letter, John Cottesloe to Brinsley Ford, 8 June 1974.
↵7 NPG 6647, currently on display in room 40 of the National Portrait Gallery.
↵9 Personal communication (e-mail) from J. McRae, 5 January 2009.
↵10 Schierenberg's 1993 portrait of Sir John Mortimer (1923–2009) is NPG 6160. The Heaney picture, completed in 2004, is NPG 6703 and is (at the time of writing) on display in room 37 of the National Portrait Gallery. Further details on the artist and a selection of his work may be found at http://www.flowerseast.com/FE/Artists_Originals.asp?Artist=SCHIER
↵11 Including the London Evening Standard, The Times and The Guardian for 26 November 2009.
- © 2010 The Royal Society