Ordinary people: Extraordinary paintings

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Who needs another portrait of a dusty academic? A Cambridge college is proving that paintings of ordinary people can be quite extraordinary.

An exhibition of portraiture currently on display up a turning staircase in Girton College, Cambridge feels truly revolutionary. People – perfectly ordinary people – and their stories are at the centre of this exhibition's appeal.

People's Portraits arrived at Girton for the first time in 2002, but no one much noticed. They were too busy scrutinising the painterly nature of painting. The exhibition itself has been much changed since it first arrived at Girton – every year new paintings are added. And now it has been officially reopened with notable additions. Artists newly admitted to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters are encouraged to donate a portrait to the show.

It had been a millennium project at its inception, brought into being by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. The ambition of the project was to provide a kind of snapshot of Britain at the turn of the new millennium, to commission a whole series of portraits of people going about their daily business without too much fuss or bother. Ordinary people! Do I hear you expostulate. Why, there is no such thing as an ordinary person. That is quite true, and this extraordinary exhibition gives solid proof of that fact.

"I think that the idea at first," Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern, the Mistress of Girton College tells me over coffee with a donkey's kick to it, "was to do a whole series of paintings of people who couldn't afford to buy such a painting."

In fact, the remit is a little wider than that. There are people here whose portraits we normally don't see painted: the local butcher; the lady behind the counter at the village post office; the man who risks his health by cleaning out cess pits; the doughty lifeboatmen from Fowey Harbour; the hairdresser who holds up a delicate glass to his trim-coiffed model. What is more, all the paintings are of people alive today. They are named, identified, placed within their particular localities, surrounded by the objects that absorb their attention, day in, day out. Yes, this show transports us back to that era when a painting could be pleasurably engrossing because of its subject matter. By saying as much, I am not suggesting that all 40 of these paintings are crudely figurative in a finically academic kind of way. They differ enormously one from another.

A painting of a milk-tester from a remote farm in the far North of England by Claude Harrison seems to glance coquettishly back at the delightful whimsy of Zoffany in particular, and to 18th-century theatrical portraiture in general. Hans Schwarz's paintings of a blacksmith and a schoolteacher put us in mind of the tonal shimmer of Bonnard. The most recent addition to the exhibition – a new one gets added every year – is of a hairdresser, holding up a mirror to his client. The painter is Saied Dai. This entire composition is of a much greater complexity than the majority of the paintings here. It involves layer upon layer of reflection, an image in a mirror being reflected in yet another mirror image. It has a slightly Mannerist feel to it. As the painter himself comments in a note to the painting, the subject is a kind of metaphor for the artist and his muse.

Almost all of the paintings here are accompanied by extended captions, which often tell the story of the painter's engagement with his subject. Take a painting called Anonymous, thief, for example by Robert Wraith. Wraith tells us how he scoured Oxford for a thief to paint. Eventually, he received a message on his answerphone. The painter and his model thief agreed a date and a time. When the thief turned up at the studio, clutching a bottle of whisky, he was shirtless – as he is in the painting. Why shirtless though? He had given away his shirt to someone on the bus. The thief had a code of honour. He wouldn't rob houses or individuals. Only businesses. He was considering giving up his vocation altogether because he couldn't tolerate the thought of leaving his dog behind – yet again. The painting was finished after a couple of sessions, and the thief disappeared into the night.

The fact is that the story telling of the captions enhances and enriches the story telling of the paintings themselves. Words and images complement one another. We are pleased to know more about the lives of these people. Now it has to be said that all this democratisation of the subject feels a little strange – if not a touch paradoxical – within the sequestered confines of a once extremely exclusive Cambridge college.

There was much portraiture already at Girton before this gang of tradesmen broke down the door, and you can see many of them in the Dining Hall. But this portraiture climbing the stairs is of a very different kind from all those people who are fêted in Cambridge's college halls for their social, political, clerical and academic achievements. Yet these bodies tricked out in their cardies, sou'westers and boiler suits deserve just as much attention, we feel. What is more, they are receiving that degree of attention from some of the finest portrait painters currently at work.

Look hard, for example, at the works by Daphne Todd on display here. Her wonderful double portrait of two butchers, the Pett cousins, Ron and Ray, from East Sussex, epitomises the strengths of this show. The scene positively reeks of the traditional butcher's shop – birds strung up by their legs from hooks; turkeys in the process of being decapitated. With the two butchers looking dourly on, four-square and indomitable in their bloodied white overalls. Or Daphne Todd's multi-panelled image of Trevor Tasker, a cesspit emptier, posturing heroically in front of his vehicle in his orange overalls, hands in pockets, like some Englished example of a trucker out of Kerouac. He's fallen in all right, but only up to his thighs. He's had the foul stuff in his mouth though. Then there are the portraits with a quieter resonance – Tom Coates' painting of Peter Faulkner, a coracle maker from Herefordshire, who carries his boat on his back like an immense halo, or John Boyd's restrained take on Denham Macdougall, a soulful looking social worker who tenderly cradles his guitar.

All these people are examples of Walt Whitman's rabble, the Common Man (or Woman), and they are just as glorious and quirkily memorable in their way as any basket of Cambridge eggheads. What is more, their very presence here helps to break down the gates of privilege.

The Mistress agrees, wholeheartedly. "What gives me such pleasure," she tells me, "is that because of this exhibition people now come to Girton without having to be invited, without having to be the guest of anyone. You just walk in."



People's Portraits, Girton College, Cambridge is open daily 2pm to 4pm or at other times by appointment (01223 338999)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage