On 6 June 1894, contributors to the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) gave a dinner to honour George Smith (1824–1901), the publisher behind this complex, ambitious and costly venture. Drawing on newspaper reports, a pamphlet recounted the occasion in some detail. One copy found its way into the archives of London's National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in the folder, or ‘registered packet’, associated with a portrait of Smith ‘presented by a group of the sitter's friends’ to the gallery in 1911.Footnote 1 Smith died seven years after the dinner; his likeness was painted posthumously by John Collier (1850–1934), a well-connected artist to whom many prominent figures sat from Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley in the 1880s to Rudyard Kipling in 1891 and 1900 and George Bernard Shaw in the 1920s.Footnote 2 It is not clear precisely how Collier went about making the image of Smith, although his sitters’ book indicates that he undertook a number of posthumous works and so presumably had developed effective techniques for doing so.Footnote 3 In any case it seems highly likely that Smith and Collier knew one another. Towards the end of his life Smith dictated an autobiography to Dr Fitchett, substantial portions of which were published in a volume written by Collier's brother-in-law, Leonard Huxley (1860–1933).Footnote 4 The registered packet for NPG 1620 also contains letters from Smith's widow Elizabeth about the portrait.Footnote 5
‘Portrait’ is an evocative idea, hence it is plausible to think of the pamphlet, with its verbatim reports of speeches, as portraying a special occasion associated with a great biographical venture. The painting of George Smith entered a prominent national institution dedicated to displaying representations of significant figures from the past. In Elizabeth's understanding it was his ‘work for literature’ that was being honoured: George was a successful publisher and businessman, a generous nurturer of writers and played a prominent role in the literary world of the British Empire.Footnote 6 Publishing was not Smith's only business, as Sidney Lee's account of his life made clear; he was shrewd, hard-working and generous.Footnote 7 As a result he became wealthy, with his munificence to writers and artists whose company he enjoyed a manifestation of his success. Noting how the elements of a life such as his can be given expression is a historical-cum-literary task. Smith portrayed himself in his speech at the 1894 dinner, which was a deft blend of patriotic sentiment and becoming modesty about a unique and arduous achievement: ‘Well gentlemen, the “Dictionary of National Biography” was my idea. (Loud cheers.)’Footnote 8 The agency of this particular publisher is historically significant, all the more so since credit for initiating the DNB is often given to Leslie Stephen. Smith's richly detailed memoir enabled Leonard Huxley, who knew him well, to record not only the history of a publishing business, but an individual's contributions to public life. Portraits and biographies intermingled then as they do now, enabling us to form a lively sense of the worlds of Thackeray and Darwin, Gladstone and Charlotte Brontë.Footnote 9
Similar connections and resonances are alive in the present day. They are singularly apt when honouring Colin Matthew (1941–1999), a distinguished historian, editor and biographer, and the founding editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the successor to George Smith's venture, from 1992 until his death. He also collected and wrote about portraits. Colin valued clear exposition and was deeply committed to sharing historical knowledge as widely as possible. He was indeed a public historian.
The story of George Smith, his dinner and the posthumous portrait is public history. The sources mentioned so far are in the public domain, they are not arcane but touch on areas of wide interest. Thus they can be put to work in accounts that are suitable for non-specialists. Such rich materials from Victorian and Edwardian Britain, a time when biography and portraiture were, as today, prominent genres, reveal the potential of two major cultural forms to speak to both academic and broader audiences. These genres enjoy a long-established place in hearts and minds and invite the attention of historians. Like ‘portrait’, ‘biography’ is an evocative and versatile notion with a life history of its own, encompassing many types of text from brief dictionary entries to popular books on familiar figures and learned multi-volume works.Footnote 10 Biographical forms – including documentaries and biopics, websites and blogs – make a major contribution to public history. While currently some biographies at least are both profitable and popular, this category of writing occupies a more complex position in the academy, especially among historians.Footnote 11
As a practice and as an object of study, biography does not sit neatly within a single discipline. Its closest kinship is with literary studies – the background of many biographers whether they work outside or inside the academy – but biography is everywhere. Biographers come from many backgrounds and disciplines where the craft of writing is given less attention. In university departments of history, for instance, little emphasis is placed on close reading in the service of analysing writing as such and on honing students’ literary skills, although historians too are writers. Writing in the spare way expected in biographical dictionaries presents its own distinctive challenges. Since biographers and biographees are necessarily historically located, life-writing in all its forms is certainly a proper study for historians. Portraiture raises different questions for the discipline of history. Few writers, no matter what their discipline, are likely to have the artistic skills to capture a likeness, while there are distinct disciplines, such as art history, museology and visual culture studies, where the study of portraiture finds a home. As a practice and object of study, then, portraiture is more distant from historical practice than biography, yet it occupies a prominent place in public history as is evident from the popularity of portrait galleries, especially in the English-speaking world, and from the ubiquity of portraits in publications, websites, film and television. Taking our cue from Colin Matthew, historians do well to consider the relationships between portraits and biographies, alongside public history and routine historical activities. We can work at untangling the changing fortunes of biography and portraiture and the genres’ position within general culture, academic settings and distinct areas of scholarship. In any case, the fact remains that scholars are wordsmiths, and thus are less at home working with visual materials, such as paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures of specific people. Portraits are a fertile source for historians, but they still have to be elucidated verbally. When reflecting on visual culture we rely on words and their skilled deployment.
Historical practices are changing all the time. Approaches, subject matter and value systems shift; teachers, whether in schools or higher education, adapt accordingly, as do publishers and the media. It is an integral part of being historians that we note, reflect on and critique such trends. The rise of public history since the Second World War exemplifies the point. In so far as ‘public history’ refers to a field dedicated to charting and evaluating the innumerable ways in which versions of the past reach wide audiences, then it does indeed reveal significant alterations in historical practice over recent decades, with university courses and publications proliferating at a remarkable rate. ‘Public history’ has a second meaning, however, since it also refers to historical products – plays, merchandise, novels, documentaries, magazines, websites and much more – through which non-specialist audiences engage with the past.Footnote 12 Technological innovation notwithstanding, these broad phenomena are not new at all, and might be deemed coeval with history itself. The task of assessing the historical forms that reach wide audiences need not be confined to practitioners of a relatively new subfield called ‘public history’, it can be performed by historians no matter what their specialism, since it leads to the re-evaluation of methods, sources, consumers, audiences and co-creators, their interests and concerns.
Certain genres, portraiture and biography above all, have played a prominent role in bringing notable figures to diverse publics over many centuries. Statues with inscriptions in streets and squares, there for anyone to view, provide an excellent example, illustrating not only how likenesses together with key pieces of (verbal) information occupied public spaces, but also how the individuals they recognise, along with their deeds, were of general interest and of concern to a polity. Portraits and biographies are ancient, related, even co-dependent types of artefact through which the present is recorded, celebrated, represented and disseminated for the sake of the future, when they come to evoke a past. These genres continue to function in such ways, working together in the public realm to recognise a select few; hence they invite the attention of historians.Footnote 13 To explore such phenomena this article uses materials linked with the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Dictionary of National Biography and its successor the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The goal is to examine lives and likenesses, the relations between them, and the insights these phenomena afford, insights that are, especially in a digital world, of wide significance. Historical activities, no matter who undertakes them, draw upon ubiquitous skills, habits and forms of curiosity.
In their different modes, portraits and biographies represent lives; so much is obvious. Precisely how they do so is less clear, given the diverse ways in which they work and the range of responses they elicit. ‘Bringing the past to life’ is a familiar claim, and people have been inclined not only to accept that portraits above all may do so but more generally to see the boundaries between living beings and images as distinctly fragile. Attributing animation to artworks has been common practice in Western art traditions. Finding life in a portrait is hardly far-fetched.Footnote 14 Visual representations of human beings, especially those depicting nameable persons, can provoke strong reactions in viewers.Footnote 15 It is thus no surprise to find that both Leslie Stephen and his successor at the DNB, Sidney Lee (1859–1926), reflected on the writing of biography in terms of portraiture and the ways in which it could animate figures from the past.Footnote 16 In any case, portraits can hardly exist apart from words, whether spoken or written. Records of commissions, conversations about likenesses, texts that evoke a life and images that accompany biographies show visual and verbal elements intermingling, illuminating and modifying each other. Take, for example, the use of signatures under portrait prints, which exemplifies the kinship of visual and verbal, and present in a book about the life of an eminent Victorian surgeon. The Memoirs and Letters of Sir James Paget (1814–99), edited by his son Stephen (1855–1926), was published in three editions between 1901 and 1903, and adorned with portraits of the prominent medical man. The frontispiece to the first edition includes his signature – ‘Ever yours James Paget’ – based on a work by George Richmond (1809–1896) from 1867 (see Figure 1).
Writing one's name with one's own hand may be construed as an act of portrayal, one that enhances viewers’ sense of the person depicted and in a historically precise way. ‘The signature, put under Mr. Richmond's portrait of him, was written in 1891, when he was 77 years old.’Footnote 17 Further, Paget's signature had an aural dimension: ‘we knew the moment when he signed a letter, and the etching sound of his pen changed to a swishing sound as he wrote his name.’ Richmond's original work, in the collections of London's Portrait Gallery (NPG 1635), is a chalk drawing on buff paper. It shows Paget's head and shoulders, giving no indications of his surgical activities, and was made for an elite club to which he belonged. Members exchanged engraved versions of the drawings.Footnote 18 Richmond's artwork can be viewed on the NPG website, where the standard details of the size, medium, date and manner of acquisition are provided, alongside other depictions of Paget made from 1849 onwards.Footnote 19 The latter include prints after paintings by Richmond and Millais and a Vanity Fair cartoon from 1876. Stephen Paget sold the drawing to the gallery in 1911 to raise funds for the children of a brother who had recently died.Footnote 20
Such conjunctions of life and likeness were commonplace by the nineteenth century. Arguably their roots go back to the beginnings of European print culture and the common practice of placing portraits of authors as frontispieces, although in such cases the portrait was likely to be more prominent than any biographical material, which was frequently minimal or absent.Footnote 21 A tighter relationship is envisioned when the two forms are explicitly treated as complementary to one another, as if each on its own would somehow be incomplete. A notable example is the eighteenth-century work by Thomas Birch (1705–1766), The Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain, where portraits and biographies sit side by side on facing pages. The ‘illustrious persons’ appear chronologically so that history unfolds before the reader's eyes. Birch was the author of other historical works; his selection of heads emphasises monarchs and those prominent in politics and military affairs. Isaac Newton and William Harvey, for example, figure, in acknowledgement of their exceptional intellectual attainments.Footnote 22 The elaborate, high-quality engravings by leading figures indicate the value placed on the portraits. It is noteworthy that the plates generally mentioned the owner of the original artwork from which the print was derived, so that patterns of collecting are woven into the engagement with lives and likenesses, encouraging wide-ranging associations to be made.Footnote 23
The complementarity between biographies and portraits can also be discerned in extra-illustrated volumes, sometimes described as ‘grangerised’, after the Rev. James Granger (1723–1776), whose A Biographical History of England from Egbert the Great to the Revolution: Consisting of Characters Disposed in Different Classes, and adapted to a methodical catalogue of engraved British heads went through several editions from 1769 onwards, with a portrait of Granger as the frontispiece.Footnote 24 His Biographical History lists known portraits of individuals, generally accompanied by fairly brief biographical comments, and arranged first by reign and then by ‘class’ starting with the highest rank – working through the royal family, great officers of state, peers and so on, ending with class XII, ‘Persons of both Sexes … remarkable from only one Circumstance of their Lives; namely such as lived to a great Age, deformed Persons, Convicts, &c.’Footnote 25 The practice whereby a book is disassembled, and prints, often but not always portraits, inserted into a blank sheet placed to face the relevant text, and then rebound, frequently in folio volumes, reveals much about the relationships between likenesses and lives. This labour-intensive and highly skilled activity continued into the twentieth century.Footnote 26 The resources and deliberation that extra-illustration demands invite us to follow past mindsets about the relationships between portraits and biographies. The set of seventy-three extra-illustrated volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography in the Heinz Archive was compiled by the twentieth-century print collector J. H. MacDonnell and includes some 7,000 portraits.Footnote 27 There is no additional commentary by the compiler, as is sometimes present. Somewhat like Birch's Heads, biography and portrait sit side by side complementing one another. Thanks to Colin Matthew, this is also the case for many lives in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published in 2004 and continuously updated online since then.Footnote 28 The innovation arose from his own interest in portraits and the advent of digital technologies.Footnote 29 In its nineteenth-century form many entries noted the subject's physical appearance together with portraits of them – an indication of attentiveness to visual characteristics.
If Colin Matthew's commitment to public history found its fullest expression in the Oxford Dictionary, it is evident in his earlier research, including when it took the most rigorous scholarly forms, as in his work on William Gladstone (1809–1898). One of Matthew's crowning achievements is the index to the multi-volume edition of Gladstone's diaries, cabinet minutes and prime-ministerial correspondence. In fact his 1994 tome contains three indexes: a dramatis personae, Gladstone's lifetime reading and a subject index. As Dennis Duncan put it in Index, A History of the, its ‘job is to mediate between author and audience … The ordering of an index is reader-orientated …’Footnote 30 Volume XIV allows those with no special knowledge of Gladstone's life and work to glimpse and grasp elements of them and explore them further. Formidable historical complexities are rendered accessible. It is possible to consider portraits of Gladstone, those by John Everett Millais (1829–1896) and George Richmond, for example, in the context of the sitter's biography through this publication.Footnote 31 As a result, the artists, their worlds and those of their sitters can be brought to life and given flesh so to speak. Thus we learn that Gladstone's relationship with Richmond included their shared religious interests, while many of those he knew, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), for example, held quite different views in key areas.Footnote 32
Gladstone had consulted James Paget on medical matters in 1873; both were depicted by Millais, while George Richmond, who had drawn the politician in 1843, was a mutual friend.Footnote 33 A significant encounter occurred in 1877; thanks to Colin Matthew's labours, it is possible to marry Gladstone's and Paget's accounts and to appreciate something of the portrait–biography nexus in action.Footnote 34 Gladstone recorded that on Tuesday 13 February he heard Paget deliver the Hunterian Oration at the College of Surgeons between 3 and 4 in afternoon.Footnote 35 The Oration was named after John Hunter (1728–1793), whose collections form the centrepiece of the College, with him as venerated forebear. Gladstone then proposed Paget’s health at the dinner, which took place in the ‘Museum’, that is, among items acquired by John Hunter and displayed by those who considered themselves his heirs. Stephen Paget observes that his father spoke ‘under Reynolds's magnificent portrait of Hunter’ and quotes passages from the oration. James was a renowned public speaker, who memorised his text, delivering it with apparent ease. He drew attention to Reynolds's canvas and its significance: ‘In that masterpiece of portraiture, which teaches like a chapter of biography, Hunter … is at rest and looking out, … as one who is looking far beyond and from things visible into a world of truth and law which can only be intellectually discerned.’ Footnote 36 It is not hard to see why Paget was drawn to Reynolds's version of Hunter, as a man who, although he was known to lack social graces, possessed intellectual prowess, a ‘scientific mind’, discernible to the artist, who was on visiting terms with John and his wife Anne. Through Reynolds, Hunter became both vividly present to and a strategic asset for later surgeons aspiring to combine commitment to ‘the highest scientific culture’ with the status of gentleman. As James Paget put it, ‘Yes: Hunter did more than anyone to make us gentlemen’Footnote 37 – with the artist playing a vital mediating role. It is striking that this portrait spawned more than twenty derivative prints.Footnote 38 John Hunter and later commentators worked hard, in and through the portrait, which becomes a portal to concerns about science, social status, masculinity, collecting human remains – shown in the portrait – and more.Footnote 39
Reynolds's 1786 depiction remains central to the College's identity; it features in later group portraits of the institution's leading figures and until recently was usually hung in the Council Room, its organisational heart.Footnote 40 When the work was first exhibited, anatomy and dissection remained controversial practices.Footnote 41 If portraits and biography are manifestly entwined in this example, so they are in the entry for John Hunter in the Dictionary of National Biography, written by George Thomas Bettany (1850–1891), who also penned articles on John's older brother William, Anne Hunter and John's nemesis Jesse Foot amongst his 206 contributions.Footnote 42 In Bettany's account both appearance and depiction were noteworthy:
In person Hunter was of middle height, vigorous, and robust, with high shoulders and rather short neck. His features were strongly marked, with prominent eyebrows, pyramidal forehead, and eyes of light blue or grey. His hair in youth was a reddish yellow, in later years white. The fine portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds … in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons was a happy and sudden inspiration, due to Hunter's falling into a reverie.Footnote 43
Reynolds's ‘chapter of biography’, to use Paget's words, does not deny Hunter's surgical and anatomical interests, but it does elevate them, by visual means, to higher social and intellectual status.
Every figure mentioned so far, with the exception of Bettany, figures in the DNB and/or the ODNB.Footnote 44 In each case it was necessary for the editors to be clear about why individuals are worthy of inclusion, and if so how long an entry each merited. Such criteria are sensitive to historical change, including shifting languages for describing work, status, attainment and attributes. Leslie Stephen's writings make clear that these issues could generate considerable frustration, conflict and anger for those involved. He was also attentive to contributors’ writing style, which he insisted should be spare and to the point given the pressures on space, a valuable reminder of the textual diversity of ‘biography’. Conveying a subject's distinctive features was also effected by a ‘tag’ that follows name and date of birth. This practice may be found in Birch's Heads, and is also followed by the NPG on labels and the website. Thomas Birch was simply ‘historian’ for the NPG, ‘compiler of histories and biographer’ for ODNB. James Granger is ‘biographer and collector’ on the gallery's website. Birch and Granger were both ordained and are shown with clerical bands in their portraits. John Hunter is ‘surgeon and anatomist’.Footnote 45 Charles Byrne, one of the ‘Irish giants’ and dissected by John Hunter, is simply given the tag ‘giant’ in the ODNB; he would fit neatly into Granger's class XII. Such terms have their histories, including the organisational settings in which they arise and are deployed and broad linguistic shifts.
Ways of assessing past figures are further complicated by the presence of ‘national’, whether this pertains to an institution or a publishing project. Judging an individual's national significance takes place in contexts shaped by familiar, long-standing and well-worn debates, which have generally focused more on politics than on culture broadly defined. It seems relatively straightforward to judge the importance of the politically prominent, those who hold significant amounts of power whether by virtue of birth, election or wealth, and leaders within the domains that most closely align with the national interest, such as military commanders and judges. In reactions to these figures what Sidney Lee called the ‘commemorative instinct’ is deeply embedded and reinforced by institutional practices, although these have come under increasingly critical scrutiny in the twenty-first century.Footnote 46
It is much less obvious, yet absolutely essential for understanding the interlacing of biography and portraiture, how historians might think afresh about ‘work’ – here simply a catch-all for diverse activities, whether directly remunerated or not, whether professional or amateur, whether a vocation, a craft or a form of art. Lives and likenesses can furnish invaluable ‘occupational’ insights.Footnote 47 The manner in which James Paget drew upon Hunter and specifically upon Reynolds's depiction of him reveals much about the occupational culture of surgeons, as Stephen Paget was certainly aware. A medically trained ‘biographer and essayist’, he emphasised the ‘professional’ status of medical men.Footnote 48 The distinguished audience present at the Hunterian Oration ensured that assertions about the intellectual and social refinement of surgeons reached influential ears, giving specific resonances to ‘surgeon’ that expressed collective aspirations. Close biographical inspection further allows Paget's full range of activities and the contexts in which he carried them out to be better appreciated. They include making watercolour depictions of specimens and cataloguing medical collections as well as his associations with prominent contemporaries such as Gladstone and Darwin. There is an analytical point here as well as an empirical one. In addition, an opportunity presents itself to bring aspects of medicine's past to general audiences in such a way that familiar tropes around ‘blood and guts’, with their proven popular appeal, are supplemented by an emphasis on friendship networks, collecting and the generation of artworks, also engaging topics.Footnote 49 Biography as a route into contexts is now a well-established conceptual device, which is all the more effective when the full range of the subject's activities and concerns are taken seriously.Footnote 50 Even in the more compact format of a biographical dictionary, it is possible to give a rounded sense of a life, indicating the settings and historical patterns within which it is best placed in an accessible manner. Portraits are integral to this approach: an understanding of portraiture can complement and extend the insights biographies afford and vice versa.
In practice, portraits often serve as illustrations to biographies accompanied by little that would enable readers to grasp their interconnections. For this to change, it is necessary not only to explore the changing relationships between these genres but to look afresh at the design of publications and websites, that is, to see portraits not as mere embellishments to a text, but as layered sources inviting considered attention.Footnote 51 In their efforts to make collections more widely accessible, most museums and galleries have constructed websites that enable users to appreciate the layered nature of artefacts. London's Portrait Gallery is no exception. Every item in the primary collection may be viewed, together with basic information such as date and manner of acquisition.Footnote 52 It is easy to find other representations of the same sitter and further works by the artists. Brief biographical information is commonly made available. In some cases, considerably more is provided.Footnote 53 Take, for example, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) – ‘naturalist, geologist and originator of the theory of evolution’ – of whom the NPG possesses thirty-five portraits, including the well-known painting by John Collier. Painted in 1883, NPG 1024 is an exact copy of a work he had undertaken for the Linnaean Society two years earlier. The website draws attention to the connections between Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley, to Collier's status as the latter's son-in-law and quotes the former's eldest son, who presented the canvas to the gallery. Another son's account of this depiction of his father is also cited. A single canvas thus provides a jumping-off point for intellectual, personal and familial phenomena with rich biographical potential, whilst offering links to further materials. It is not just that the site is freely available and easy to use; it also indicates something of the research processes undertaken when placing an iconic image in context – public history indeed. With a light touch, then, it also sheds light on historians’ work. Webs of association – Darwin–Huxley–Collier, for example – are present in the entry for NPG 1024. Collier's interpretations of his sitters also indicate ways in which historians can trace connections between people. Such palpable links enhance historical understanding.
One possible next step is to consider the NPG itself as an object of historical analysis; many accounts of its foundation in 1856 and its early years exist.Footnote 54 Its contemporary profile is illuminating for history and public history.Footnote 55 Given the popularity of portraiture, the gallery receives considerable media attention, for example, when (some) new works arrive, whether by purchase, gift or bequest.Footnote 56 Acquisitions are history in the making and they bear on biography and national history in their most generous senses. Economic and administrative processes are an integral part of the picture. Portraits become available in unpredictable ways and at varying costs, thus multiple contingencies bear on the composition of the collection. In this respect the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography could not be more different, since the staff are free to include a high-quality biography of anyone who meets the entry criteria. It does not depend on complex art markets or the wishes of donors and preferences of trustees, nor on the success of fundraising, to acquire highly prized items. Economic and administrative processes remain vital for an understanding of the DNB and of Colin Matthew's role at the ODNB. George Smith's ‘Recollections’ makes clear the meticulous approach he took to publishing in general and to the DNB in particular, enabling us to see not only the kinds of work involved but the business decisions he took. While he did not seek to make the DNB commercially viable, he nonetheless needed to keep an eye on his losses. The ODNB has been supported by the publisher, with some input from public funds; the online version is behind a paywall, although more than half the UK's public libraries subscribe and through them it is possible to use it at one's leisure. Details of access, costs if any to consumers and sources of funding need to be assessed when reflecting on vehicles for public history, just as governance and ethos are. While George Smith was not answerable to a board, he did employ staff to read and comment on manuscripts, and Leslie Stephen published lists of potential biographees, inviting comments. The ODNB staff consult widely and work with external advisers; the project is part of Oxford University Press, the largest such press in the world with its own governance structures. Producing and disseminating biographies, acquiring and displaying portraits are economic and administrative phenomena as well as literary, aesthetic, national, political and cultural ones. It is possible to move seamlessly from the life and visual representations of George Smith, for instance, into broader historical questions: from tags, through work and administrative processes to business history and commemoration, professional and social status, public personae, national recognition, state-funded institutions and cultural trends.
Portraits and biographies walk hand in hand; they go well, even naturally, together and have done for centuries. This was Colin Matthew's position. There is a huge amount of evidence that an ‘authentic’ portrait, one depicting a named sitter and demonstrably taken from life, exercises an especially powerful allure, while even those of doubtful origin can meet a deep need, experienced by individuals, families and institutions alike, to know what someone in the past (allegedly) looked like. Authenticity may be in the eye of the beholder. Whether portraits really can achieve such truthfulness is another matter; rather it is the thirst for a likeness, whatever the medium, that is remarkable. These points are only reinforced by frequent uses of ‘portrait’ to mean a faithful rendition of a phenomenon, whether that be a city, an area, a river, a period or a person. ‘Portrait’ is a compelling idea, evident in its use by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. Its potency is further borne out by the notion's appeal to writers of fiction, including Nathaniel Hawthorne in the mid-nineteenth and Iain Pears in the early twenty-first centuries. The relevance of fiction for historical practice is considerable.Footnote 57
The examples presented in this article suggest that it is useful to think in terms of a portrait–biography nexus, both in general terms, and in specific cases where it is possible to trace the relationships between these two means of grasping a life, which are a familiar part of everyday existence, now as in the past. They reveal the ways in which people, such as artists and those they depict, are connected, the routes through which collections are formed and publications assembled. They are well suited to public history as well as to analysing the deployment of portraits and biography in historical practices of many kinds.
Colin Matthew's own entry in the ODNB exemplifies my key themes – ‘historian and founding editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’.Footnote 58 Written by the eminent historian Ross McKibbin (1942–), a colleague and friend, the same generation as his subject, the entry follows an unfolding life starting with his family of origin, while also assessing the significance of specific aspects of it. The tone is frank yet affectionate, full of personal detail, but also soberly measured about Colin's contributions to scholarship. One finishes reading it with a genuine sense of a person, their achievements and legacy. It is an admirably rounded account. The portrait photograph that accompanies it shows a man at work, looking up for just a moment, we may suppose. The image maintains an emphasis on the sitter's occupation, which decontextualised head-and-shoulder representations cannot do unless a uniform of some kind is involved.Footnote 59 In addition to the narrative element of the ODNB entry, there are routine sections of further information at the end, which include the size of the estate, as well as sources and likenesses. As a result, it is indeed possible to imagine both the research processes behind the memoir and those that might be prompted by it, as the NPG website also permits. These points suggest the special value of forms of public history that hint at research processes and make historical toil transparent. All historians can share their labours, indicating why they matter, with the public, exploring in the process how portraits and biographies keep those we value alive. Thus Colin Matthew lives, not just in the hearts of his family, friends and colleagues, but in the fruits of his working life. He approved of the idea that historians should share their endeavours as fully as possible, that exploring portraits and biographies can have public benefit and that clear, well-crafted prose is a professional ideal. It is fitting that his portrait – available to all – shows him mid-flow, still present.
A version of this article was first presented as the Royal Historical Society's 2021 Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture for the Public Understanding of History, read on 2 November 2021.
I am deeply grateful to Sue Matthew for illuminating and inspiring conversations about Colin, to Philip Carter, Elizabeth Cowling, Mark Curthoys, Robert Faber, Jack Hepworth, Dawn Kemp, Margaret Pelling, Howard Nelson and staff at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for their help and insights and to the Warden, Senior Common Room members and the staff of the library of New College, Oxford, for their stimulating company and generous help while I was working on the lecture and article. The assistance of staff at the Heinz Archive, National Portrait Gallery, London, is, as ever, greatly appreciated.
Ludmilla Jordanova is Emeritus Professor of History and Visual Culture at Durham University.