Understanding British Portraits Annual Seminar, 24 October 2023 by Dr Tessa Kilgarriff
Every edition of the Understanding British Portraits Annual Seminar provides an energising environment for exchanging ideas on the latest research into portraiture, and the 2023 seminar proved to be an especially revitalising occasion. This was the first annual seminar that I had been able to attend since the pandemic and I was deeply impressed by the breadth of papers, all expertly introduced by our chair Oli McCall.
The 2023 seminar also marked the first seminar that I have attended since I shifted from working in museums and galleries, into working in a historic house context as a curator of collections and interiors for English Heritage. For that reason, my interest was drawn to those papers that considered research projects and exhibitions outside of the purpose-built museum space.
David McAlmont, Robert Taylor and Matthew Storey generously shared their experienced of researching and curating Permissible Beauty: Black Queer Portraiture at Hampton Court Palace. Their presentation foregrounded the ethos of their project, putting the necessity of Black and Queer inclusion at its heart. The project team repeatedly emphasised how essential this ethical framework was, as all participants had signed up to its values, making it a valuable touchstone to return to as they navigated the production of photographic portraits, a film and an installation at Hampton Court. Storey detailed how the team had rehung a familiar portrait series, the Windsor Beauties, in a new order, but chose to deliberately omit the sitters’ aristocratic titles. This theme of emphasising individuality over social labels was further explored by the captions which included commentary, often containing a subversive counterpoint, written by the members of the Black British Queer community portrayed in Taylor’s photographs. Permissible Beauty will reach an even wider audience in 2023-24 as it is being screened as part of the Wellcome Collection’s Cult of Beauty exhibition.
Two further papers focused on portraiture within heritage environments. The first was Kate Bethune, Elena Greer and Lauren Cochrane’s work-in-progress project on Kingston Lacy’s colonial legacies. New research had surfaced clues as to how the Woodley family’s ownership of plantations in St Kitts likely funded, via Frances Woodley’s dowry, the redecoration of key interiors at Kingston Lacy. The project team were in the development phase of how to share this new research, in tandem with research on the portrait of Frances Woodley herself, and received productive suggestions from other panellists on the use of audio and visual devices within historic interiors. The second paper also focused on a National Trust property, Saltram House. In this paper I was struck by the ingenuity of Alison Cooper and Sarah Maisey in pursuing a very challenging conservation treatment of Theresa Parker by Joshua Reynolds. I was impressed by the careful use of a mezzotint of the portrait to guide the cleaning and retouching of details which had become invisible due the artist’s choice of materials and inherent deterioration. Maisey’s exacting visual literacy allowed her to complete an extremely successful treatment which will soon be visible in Saltram’s newly accessible, thanks to a rewoven Axminster carpet, Robert Adam-designed Saloon.
I benefitted so much from the UBP Annual Seminar: technical knowledge, new approaches, an insight into work-in-progress, and the opportunity to meet new colleagues from wide range of fields. We also had a great opportunity to visit the re-opened National Portrait Gallery and hear in detail about the process of creating an inspiring, audience-first redisplay from Lucy Peltz. The galleries are filled with new portraits and new stories, and I recommend everyone to go and explore.