The Eton College Portrait Collections and the ‘I WOZ ERE’ compulsion by Charlotte Dew

Memento mori skull 'graffiti' in the cloister, Eton College. Photography by the author

Memento mori skull 'graffiti' in the cloister, Eton College. Photography by the author

Justin Nolan, Deputy Director at Eton College, extended a warm welcome to UBP group members on the 4 April. Fellow staff and researchers connected to the College joined him in this, initiating an attitude of generosity to share knowledge and experience, which was maintained throughout the study day. Nolan outlined Eton’s recently adopted commitment to making their collections available for the public benefit; we were encouraged to come back, visit the changing exhibitions in the Verey Gallery and the Tower Gallery and pursue our research interests. During the course of the rich and diverse day, that gave us access to a wide range of usually private spaces where the portrait collection is hung, I found many enticements to return.

Dr Tessa Kilgarriff has provided an insightful review of the day in her blog post Reflections on the Eton College portrait collection study day. She notes the fascinating questions raised concerning approaches to preservation and conservation, as well as the impacts of changing attitudes to collections within institutional contexts. I have chosen to focus on what I’ve termed the ‘I WOZ ERE’ compulsion, which the day gave me cause to consider, and consequently question who is remembered, how, and why.

It is difficult to argue with Giorgio Vasari’s proposition that “Portraiture is the art which keeps images of men alive after their deaths”.† This statement alludes to a human need – whether acknowledged or subliminal – to believe we will be remembered, especially when moving through a transient system, such as our schooling. It is necessary to leave this environment and move on to the next stage of life, so how do we leave our mark? The study day highlighted three ways in which pupils are remembered, officially and unofficially at Eton.

Firstly, a select cohort of pupils is recorded through the extraordinary collection of ‘Leaving Portraits’, by artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art, described these paintings as a custom that started in 1760s and continued until the 1830s. The practice and the way subjects were selected is not definitively understood, but it is believed that the portraits were made and gifted at the request of the Head Master, by the pupil or their family, to accompany a financial ‘thank you’. In all but two cases, they are of fee-paying students – ‘Oppidans’ or town dwellers – who lived outside, but attended the College, rather than the resident “poor and indigent scholars”,§ who the school was first established to teach. The ‘thank you’ helped to supplement the Head Master’s low income and cover other teaching costs. The practice came to an end when the system of remunerating the Head Master was reformed.

Election Chamber, Eton College, 1870s. Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College

Election Chamber, Eton College, 1870s. Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College

We were invited to view Eton’s most handsome presentation of ‘Leaving Portraits’ in the ‘Election Chamber’, where they have hung in the same configuration since 1852. The collection, which includes portraits of banker and writer Robert Snow and poet Arthur Henry Hallam both by Sir Martin Archer Shee, was assembled by Head Master Dr John Keate (1773-1852). Keate took the group of paintings with him to Windsor when he became Canon of St. George’s Chapel in retirement, and they were returned to the College by his wife, following his death. The practice of pupils or their family gifting painted portraits extends beyond the 1830s, although in much smaller numbers, and each with their own individual gifting or commissioning narrative. Today this aspect of the collection includes portraits of familiar 21st century politicians and royalty who have attended the College.

Roddy Fisher, Curator of the Photographic Archive at the College and retired House Master, provided an insightful introduction to the second means of recording students’ time at Eton; house, team and special occasion photographs that are held in the Photographic Archive. These images, which are in the process of being carefully catalogued and digitised (and are available to search and view online), start with the advent of photography. They are more representative of each year’s intake and offer snatches of personality. In the earlier examples we were shown, the assembled groups pose informally, boys loll against each other and are sometimes up to larks, which cause them to become a blur during the long exposure. Over time, up to the present day, the group line-ups have become more formal, giving way to even rows and tidy uniforms, with the House Master and a cluster of trophies at the centre. The early photographs are similar to the informality we find on social media, compared to the more recent shots. Fisher showed a range of fascinating examples, which convey the comradery and the close ties formed between groups of boys during their years living and studying together.

The third and final means of remembrance is unofficial, akin to ‘graffiti’ and the manifestation of the ‘I WOZ ERE’ compulsion. All over the panels and benches in the original Eton school room or ‘Upper school’, and the outdoor cloister below, thousands of boys have inscribed their names in the wood and stone. This is not traditional portraiture, but I would argue a portraiture of sorts. It surprises me to reflect that it was the most memorable and visceral evocation of students past, that I encountered during the visit. The impact is caused by the volume of names, the visual layering of one next to and over another, built-up for centuries. Amongst the names in the cloister there is a skull, a memento mori like that carved onto gravestones, which serves to emphasise the memorial these walls have become with the passing of time. We were told that now boys are only officially allowed to add their name in the cloister, if they can demonstrate an ancestral link with an existing name, and today in the ‘Upper Room’ the names are carved by a professional; those of the Princes William and Harry are amongst recent additions.

Today, in museums, galleries and institutions, we face the biases of former hierarchies of power. These have informed what is created or commissioned, what survives and why, what is collected and inevitably as a consequence who is not represented. This exists everywhere, even at Eton. However, seeing the walls of names and the photographic archive, alongside the more famous painted portrait collection, was a strong reminder of the benefits of drawing from a range of sources, and seeking out those that offer another perspective, even if a bit more research or imagination is required to unpick them. And just in case we need a bit of help, there are some great resources out there; UNLIMITED… has created ‘Cards for Inclusion’, a resource to help embed the work of disabled artists in the mainstream cultural sector and Museum Detox, the BAME network for museum and heritage professionals, challenges the sector to assess ‘our own conscious biases, prejudices and stereotypes that we hold on ourselves and others’. UBP study days are always a fantastic learning opportunity and think-space, the Eton College study day went well beyond my expectations.


† Smith, Alistair. 1985. Looking into Paintings. Faber and Faber, p123.
§ Quarrie, Paul. 1991. Leaving Portraits from Eton College. Dulwich Picture Gallery, p7.

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