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Portraiture in the Oxford DNBfree

  • Lucy Peltz,
  • Henry Summerson,
  • Mark Haworth-Booth,
  • Evelyn Silber,
  • Catherine Eagleton
  •  and Frances Spalding

One of the innovations of the Oxford DNB is its inclusion of portrait illustrations, based on research in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, London. With more than 10,200 images the dictionary provides the largest selection of national portraiture ever published. Here six experts choose a favourite portrait from the Oxford DNB's collection.

William Hazlitt (self-portrait c.1802)

by Lucy Peltz, curator, eighteenth-century collection, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Hazlitt (1778–1830)

self-portrait, c. 1802

Maidstone Museums and Art Galleries / Bridgeman Art Library

William Hazlitt (1778–1830) was the foremost essayist and critic of the regency era. His writing is characterized by the elegance and erudition with which he vented his spleen on every subject from art to bare-knuckle fighting. Speaking out against tyranny and vanity in favour of liberty and nature, Hazlitt still captivates as an uncompromising, polemical idealist. His reputation has recently enjoyed a revival. In 2003 The Guardian led a successful campaign to erect his monument at St Anne's, Soho, and I curated a small exhibition to coincide with the launch of the new regency galleries at the National Portrait Gallery. Perhaps Hazlitt's attraction is that of the original ‘angry young man’; however, the display was particularly thought-provoking as the irascible prose portraits in his Spirit of the Age serve as an antidote to the hagiography that portrait paintings generally propose.

After borrowing this haunting self-portrait for the exhibition I became intrigued by the prospect and impact of Hazlitt the painter. In a time-honoured trope of virtuosity, he wrote of his epiphany on visiting the duc d'Orléans's collection of old masters in 1798: 'From that time I lived in a world of pictures' (The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, 1930–34, 18.14). Seduced by Raphael, Guido, and especially Titian—whose work he judged to be Nature itself—Hazlitt set himself the high-minded task of becoming an Artist. Studying with his brother John, a jobbing portrait and miniature painter, was not the obvious route to this end, but wider horizons opened when, after the peace of Amiens, Hazlitt was commissioned to copy paintings in the Louvre.

Working at weekends when he could not visit the museum, Hazlitt took Titian's Ippolito de Medici as the model for his own self-portrait. The end result is more than an exercise in chiaroscuro: it is an introspective exposé of a 25-year-old idealist. The unflinching, single-minded gaze, the stark lighting, and the tilt of the head convey an intellectually arrogant young man, certain of his own elevated ideas yet somehow vulnerable and isolated.

Read against the backdrop of his life, this unique self-portrait is a poignant testament to unrequited passion. By 1804, steeped in frustration at his failings, Hazlitt turned his back on life as a professional portrait painter. He never lost his passion and went on to write numerous incisive, opinionated essays on art.

The question remains whether Hazlitt could have succeeded as a portrait painter. Aside from the technical flaws—he was overly in thrall to bitumen—he had a complete antipathy for 'Mr and Mrs Such-a-one', vain sitters who expected to be depicted according to their aspirations, as 'abstractions of persons and property' rather than, as he would have wanted to render them, as 'studies in light and shade' (Complete Works, 18.52, 108). Morally unable to compromise let alone flatter, the obsequious nature and commercial acumen required of a portrait painter eluded, even disgusted, Hazlitt.

Hazlitt never doubted the value of portraiture, if only it achieved 'the fullest representation of individual nature' (Complete Works, 18.75). His self-portrait is doubly affective when it is known that twenty-five years later, when he returned to Paris, Hazlitt tried to make a copy of Titian's Man in Black. His complete inability to do so painfully reawakened the anguish he had harboured since relinquishing his dream of being a painter. With his self-image rocked by failure he confessed:

I had no sense of feeling left, but of the unforeseen want of power, and of the tormenting struggle to do what I could not. I was ashamed ever to have written or spoken on art; it seemed a piece of vanity and affectation in me to do so.

A. C. Grayling, The Quarrel of the Age: the Life and Times of William Hazlitt, 2000, 329

Eleanor of Castile (William Torel, 1291–3)

by Henry Summerson, research editor, Oxford DNB

Eleanor (1241–1290)

by William Torel, 1291–3 [tomb effigy]

The beautiful gilt-bronze effigy of Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290) in Westminster Abbey is a memorial both to a woman and to her husband's grief upon her death. But it is more than that, for the woman was a queen and her husband, Edward I, was one of England's greatest kings, and in giving visible expression to his sorrow he was also making a public statement about himself and his royal authority.

When Eleanor died, at Harby, Lincolnshire, on 28 November 1290, it seems unlikely that she was greatly mourned outside her family. She appears to have been regarded as unduly assiduous in acquiring lands, as an extortionate moneylender, and as a significant influence on a royal government that was widely regarded as harsh. Edward's commemorative programme was not so much intended to prove his subjects wrong as to assert the power and dignity of the crown. Hence the twelve splendid memorial crosses, each containing a statue of the queen, that marked the places where her body rested as it was taken to Westminster (three survive, albeit heavily restored), and the three tombs constructed for her physical remains: in Lincoln Cathedral, for her viscera; in the church of the London Blackfriars, for her heart; and in Westminster Abbey itself.

The Westminster tomb effigy is closer to an official than a personal likeness, and may well have been based on Eleanor's seal. The queen's status is shown by the material used—metal rather than wood or stone—as well as by her crown (the sceptre she also carried is now lost). It was made, using the lost-wax method, by the London goldsmith William Torel. The whole tomb was the work of several craftsmen, including Thomas of Leighton, who made the iron grille protecting it, and William of Durham, who provided a wooden screen and canopy. Alexander Abingdon, who worked on some of the roadside crosses, may have supplied the wax model for the effigy. The tomb is thus less a single artist's creation than a corporate demonstration of, as well as testimony to, English artistic skills at the end of the thirteenth century. Its composite origins, together with the purpose it was intended to serve, may help to account for the emotional reticence of the effigy. Despite the sensitive rendering of her features, the dead queen presents above all a graceful expression of the dignity of royalty that was maintained at the court of Edward I.

Ted Hughes (Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1971)

by Mark Haworth-Booth, author of Photography, an Independent Art: Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum 1839–1996 (1997) and Wild Track: Poems with Pictures by Friends (2005)

Edward James Hughes (1930–1998)

by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1971

© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

I met Ted Hughes (1930–1998) and Henri Cartier-Bresson in the same year, 1978. I went that year to an Arvon Foundation writing retreat at Lumb Bank. Ted made a surprise appearance as guest reader, giving a memorable rendition of some of his finest poems in his magnificent, musical voice, and then accompanying his rapt listeners to the local pub. The same summer I worked with Henri on a huge retrospective of his photographs at the Edinburgh Festival. I spent some time with him too in various pubs, relaxing between bouts of hanging his show of 390 photographs.

My first encounter with Ted Hughes had come in the early 1960s during my first term at Cambridge University. He came to read in a crypt in, if memory serves, King's College. He was thirty-three and I believe it was the first public reading he had given since the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath. Next day I bought his first two books of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal. He and his work became talismans for me, and still are. My first meeting with Henri's photographs took place when I started work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1970. The V&A mounted a big show of his photographs in 1969. His photographs were stored in the part of the museum where I worked. I got to know them well.

In 1977 I was appointed curator of photographs at the V&A. Sir Roy Strong, the director, was an ardent supporter of the art of photography. Our first grand purchase was an archive of Henri's photographs—the same collection that was to be shown in Edinburgh. However, this portrait of Ted, taken in 1971, was not among the 390. Henri generously added it to the collection at my request. He once sent me a postcard of the portrait and it looked back at me for years from a window-sill. I like it because it is simple and believable—and yet Henri used the 35 mm frame to emphasize Ted's powerful presence. This is made more emphatic by the way the flaps of his leather jacket hang forward towards us. I have felt that presence engulf a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall. And I have also experienced the intense physical and psychological presence of the man with the camera. This was a memorable encounter for them and consequently for us.

Helen Manson Biggar (Benno Schotz, 1932)

by Evelyn Silber, director, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Helen Manson Biggar (1909–1953)

by Benno Schotz, 1932

Recently I was walking about in Trafalgar Square, London, looking from every angle at Marc Quinn's newly unveiled white marble sculpture of the artist Alison Lapper, Alison Lapper Pregnant, which will occupy the famous fourth plinth until early 2007. The brilliant idea of using a competition to commission a succession of sculptures occupying the most grandly iconic location in London has greatly enlivened the debate about public and portrait sculpture. Public sculpture is so often ignored. How many, even this year, really looked at Lord Nelson atop his column as a piece of sculpture? Quinn's sculpture has attracted acres of media commentary and has thousands who visit the square looking and talking about its scale, finish, and colour, as well as its subject: a nude, pregnant, and disabled woman treated with the monumental gravity of a classical goddess or triumphant general.

Days later, serendipity led me to the fine 1930s Benno Schotz bronze portrait bust of Helen Biggar (1909–1953), another artist who overcame disability to enjoy a short but wonderfully diverse and productive career as a sculptor, theatre designer, film-maker, and radical political activist. She was previously unknown to me though I now live in her city, Glasgow, where she was active in agit-prop theatre and political causes during the 1930s and throughout the Second World War.

Benno Schotz, the foremost portrait sculptor of twentieth-century Scotland, was a friend and colleague of Biggar. His empathy for his subject shows, but he also plays to contemporary norms of portraiture, avoiding any reference to her disability through the conventions of the portrait bust, a genre still trailing clouds of glory from its classical past. Her strong bone structure, clear cut, handsome features, no-nonsense combed-back hair, and the sweep of a shawl round her shoulders convey her determination and intelligence, and hint at her creative dynamism. But so much about her remains enigmatic, hidden, or lost. Her downward gaze is reflective, intense, sad. Was this her fundamental mood underlying, and perhaps part contradicting, the outgoing and creative liveliness of her life and chosen media? Is hers a life still only partly acknowledged and understood? Even the bronze portrait's present location is unknown. I yearn to meet her gaze and get to know her better. From now on, I shall be watching for her tracks across the rich cultural life of the city.

Britannia (Jan Roettier, 1667)

by Catherine Eagleton, curator of modern money, British Museum, London

Britannia (fl. 1st– cent.21st)

by Jan Roettier, 1667 [reverse]

© Copyright The British Museum

In August 2005 the Royal Mint announced a competition for new designs for the reverses of British coins. In the discussion that followed in the media one of the designs seemed to be better loved than most: the 50p coin featuring Britannia. This ancient personification of Britain still seems to stir up feeling among contemporary Britons. Ancient representations of Britannia often had much in common with the Greek goddess Athena: a warrior and peace-maker, wise as well as strong. She first appeared on Roman coins under the emperor Hadrian, but after the end of Roman rule in Britain she slipped into the background. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Britannia was once again evoked as a symbol of Britain, and in particular the country's growing naval and imperial power.

Jan Roettier's medal shows Britannia looking out to sea and to her naval fleet, since it commemorates the ending of war between the English and Dutch by the treaty of Breda in 1667. This treaty concluded a European war but also shaped the world outside Europe, with the Netherlands ceding control of what was to become New York in exchange for gains in the East Indies and a near-monopoly on the nutmeg trade. Despite the compromises made by the treaty, negotiated in the aftermath of a Dutch attack in June 1667 on the River Medway, Britannia looks optimistically at her ships, and the inscription around the edge of this medal describes Charles II as 'restorer of peace and of the empire'.

Britannia's draped clothing, spear, and shield follow Roman representations of the figure. At the same time there are modern features of this ancient lady. The union flag, adopted a few decades earlier, appears on Britannia's shield, and her portrait is said to have been based on a real person: Frances Teresa Stuart, mistress of Charles II. A few years later Britannia reappeared on British coins, and from 1694 she was depicted on Bank of England notes. Jan Roettier's Britannia, then, shows us some of her power—she can be a warrior, and also a protector, majestic and victorious. But she is also humble and sometimes vulnerable, in need of protection as much as she protects. Here, as in other depictions, she combines the ancient and the modern with a capacity for reinvention by successive generations. It will be interesting to see whether she continues to feature on British coinage when the new reverse designs are issued.

(Giles) Lytton Strachey (Dora Carrington, 1916)

by Frances Spalding, reader in twentieth-century art and head of fine art, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

(Giles) Lytton Strachey (1880–1932)

by Dora Carrington, 1916

by permission of Frances Partridge on behalf of Dora Carrington Estate

Everything that Lytton Strachey (1880–1932) did—the way he sat, spoke, held a book, even the way he buttered his bread—was different from the norm. He was tall (6 ft 1 in) but not unusually so. Nevertheless his lankiness seemed almost comically eccentric. Many artists felt compelled to draw or paint him. None, however, achieved such a spell-binding effect as Dora Carrington does in this portrait. Its success can be attributed to many things. But perhaps the first thing one notices is how well it portrays the activity of reading. To be 'lost in a book' is to be present and absent at the same time; and Strachey, though here recorded in physical terms, is also mentally far removed, absorbed in another world.

In order to convey his rapt concentration Carrington moves in close to her subject. She has omitted anything that would distract from the focus of her attention, cropping the picture so severely that we only see a part of his book. She has also exaggerated the size of his hands, partly to offset the face and to keep the interest balanced across the canvas. The warmth of the flesh tones in the hands and face are positioned and enhanced by the cold blue shadows in the pillow and on the wall behind. The more one studies this painting, the more it betrays the formality indicative of great artistry.

Strachey, in 1916, was relatively unknown. He had published Landmarks in French Literature, a general survey of the subject, and he was working towards his collection of four essays, Eminent Victorians, which was to make his name. He had first met Dora Carrington two years before, at a weekend house party in Sussex. While out walking on the downs he had suddenly kissed her. She was so angered by this that she crept into his bedroom, early the next morning, intent on cutting off his beard while he slept. But as she bent over the bed he woke and transfixed her with his gaze. It had a transformative effect on her, and from then on she remained devoted to him, sharing a house with him, first at Tidmarsh Mill in Berkshire, then at Ham Spray in Wiltshire. Her love for him was so great that after he died she despaired and took her own life.

The portrait is in part a record of their union. It was a relationship compromised by his homosexuality. A sense of exclusion may have stimulated Carrington's desire to catch and record not just Strachey's outward appearance but also his inner life. The fall of light, and its gentle pressure, stills the portrait. It is also suggestive of a tender, respectful watchfulness.

Likenesses

  • W. Torel, gilt-bronze effigy, 1291–3, Westminster Abbey, London; Eleanor of Castile [see illus.]
  • J. Roettier, gold medal (reverse), 1667, BM, George III, Eng. med. 87; Britannia [see illus.]
  • W. Hazlitt, self-portrait, oils, 1802, Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery; William Hazlitt [see illus.]
  • D. Carrington, portrait, 1916, priv. coll.; (Giles) Lytton Strachey [see illus.]
  • B. Schotz, sculpture, 1932; Christies Scotland, 24 Sept 1997, lot 1; Helen Manson Biggar [see illus.]
  • H. Cartier-Bresson, photograph, 1971, NPG; Edward James Hughes [see illus.]