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Portraits and biographies play a central role in engaging non-specialists with the past, and hence invite careful scrutiny. Major enterprises, such as the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Dictionary of National Biography, in both its original and Oxford versions, provide rich examples for reflecting on public history and on the relationships between types of writing about past times. These issues relate to literature as well as to history, given the prominence of biographies of literary figures, and the role of literary scholars as authors of biographies. Using materials concerning the artist John Collier (1850–1934), the publisher George Smith (1824–1901) and the surgeon James Paget (1814–1899), this article examines the relationships between portraits and biographies and the types of insight they afford. Colin Matthew's innovation of including portraits in the Oxford Dictionary, together with his own scholarship on William Gladstone (1809–1898), including his portraits, provide the basis for suggestions about the role of work when representing lives, including those of historians. Public history can only benefit from research practices being discussed in an accessible manner, as attempted here.
How can we use visual and material culture to shed light on the past? Ludmilla Jordanova offers a fascinating and thoughtful introduction to the role of images, objects and buildings in the study of past times. Through a combination of thematic chapters and essays on specific artefacts – a building, a piece of sculpture, a photographic exhibition and a painted portrait – she shows how to analyse the agency and visual intelligence of artists, makers and craftsmen and make sense of changes in visual experience over time. Generously illustrated and drawing on numerous examples of images and objects from 1600 to the present, this is an essential guide to the skills that students need in order to describe, analyse and contextualise visual evidence. The Look of the Past will encourage readers to think afresh about how they, like people in the past, see and interpret the world around them.