Thoughts from the UBP Annual Seminar 2013 by Elaine Blake

Mary Russell Mitford 1824, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Reading Museum: 1931.305.1, © Reading Borough Council

Mary Russell Mitford 1824, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Reading Museum: 1931.305.1. © Reading Borough Council

I started the day with high hopes. I had recently put together an exhibition of some of the best of the portraits in oil in the Reading Museum collection and felt sure that there would be much of relevance amongst the papers.  In addition there would be people to meet and a chance to pop into the Elizabeth I and Her People exhibition. I was not disappointed.

Anna Reynolds’ description of the rationale and process behind her In Fine Style exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery was fascinating. A gallery peopled by the sitters in the paintings with costume providing a tactile 3-D reference, non-didactic displays with focused labels written in accessible language – all rang bells. I was particularly interested in the use of headless acrylic stands to display the costume and the inclusion of film of a professional embroiderer labouring in real time. The extent of visitors’ participation in the galleries and through social media became apparent with a focus on one audience, fashion students. They produced some impressively creative outcomes. I was excited by the resulting film and music choices, tickled by the ROBE magazine and its ‘Pepys Doublet Dilemma’, and frankly thrilled by the Wimbledon College student’s costumes made in response to the portraits.

Later on Henrietta Hine discussed the Courtauld Institute’s public programme and the progress of its Look Again project. It is probably true elsewhere but certainly in local authority museums that we are grabbing opportunities to broaden our audiences by working in partnership with community groups and activists such as artists, so I was particularly impressed by the success of this project. Aspects such as the delivery of an unplanned exhibition deepened a rich experience for the students. I was also very impressed by the expansion of the project over three years into what seems to be a sustainable model of artist photographer and youth convenor working with secondary schools. To have enthused students enough to bring their families from Tower Hamlets to the Courtauld is a stunning achievement, let alone to find some of the participants confidently applying to study at the Institute.

I quickly forgot the pile of public enquiries and the pressing grant application left on my desk. I started to remember how exhilarating research can be and to reconnect with the idea that those of us who care for and advocate for collections of artworks are very privileged: There are always such surprises and links to be made.

Marcus Risdell led us through the story of reinstating Frederick Sem as the creator of the wonderful ‘big head’ caricatures now in the Garrick Club collection. A romp of a tale of persistent detective work, it ended with a theatrical reveal. He certainly caused me to smile ruefully when the enigma of SEM turned out to have been the result of a documentation error. At Reading we have spent a great deal of time over the last two years cleansing data in our records in preparation for moving it to a new database – such painstaking work and so easy to get wrong!

Other speakers considered specific ways of approaching portraits. Nel Whiting applied a sociologist’s eye to addressing gender in the conversation pieces and associated portraits of David Allan. I have often wondered about the meanings of these ‘charming’ domestic group portraits. Clearly intended to be decoded, they are as carefully arranged as shoe box theatres, even when they show actual interiors.

Dr Julian North considered the fashion for author portraits, both drawn and written, in Victorian Britain. Suddenly Reading’s portrait of a rather round-faced Mary Russell Mitford became infinitely more interesting than previously (top left). Documented as having been kept until his death by Benjamin Haydon, the artist of the work and Mitford’s friend, it relates to the larger NPG portrait of her by John Lucas after Haydon. I really must get a volunteer to explore this.

Arabella Fermor c.1705, unknown artist, Reading Museum: 1981.23.1, © Reading Borough Council

Arabella Fermor c.1705, unknown artist, Reading Museum: 1981.23.1.
© Reading Borough Council

I had expected Professor Edward Corp’s analysis of the French and Italian portraits of the Stuarts in exile after 1689 to be as interesting as it was but not relevant to Reading’s collection. I may have been completely wrong. We have one little portrait of Arabella Fermor, painted by an unknown artist about 1705 (above). As the Fermors were leading Oxfordshire Catholic recusants could they have entertained Jacobite sympathisers and could an artist who knew the work of Laguilliere have been responsible for this work? I was relaxing now and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Artist Bettina von Zwehl discussed her highly creative dialogue with miniatures at the V&A and the Holburne Museum, Bath. I hadn’t thought about the display of miniatures before and her conclusion, that wall mounting did miniature works a disservice as they were intended to be worn or held in the hand, was compelling; much better that they be encountered, actively, as you bent over a desk case. I also loved the fact that her exploration of ‘eye miniatures’ led her away from her expected response (photography) to produce jewellery and an installation.

Finally, Dr Wiebke Leister gave us an insight into the power of photography to capture physiognomy but not necessarily true emotion. Without contextual action and without biography, Weibke asked, who can tell from a single photograph, a moment in time at the apex of an emotion, whether the subject is ‘gurgling with laughter or sobbing with tears’. Was the subject laughing or screaming? This question remained with me during the hilarity of the Christmas party season and I still find it disturbing.

Thank you for a thought provoking day. I returned to the fray refreshed.


Do come and see Making Faces: Tudor to Modern, closes March 16 2014
See for events and activities including Dr Elizabeth Goldring discussing the splendid Reading Museum portrait of Elizabeth I. Was it painted by the same artist and at the same time as Robert Dudley Ist Earl of Leicester in the Tudor galleries at the NPG?

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