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Ordinary people: Extraordinary paintings

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)