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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.
The newest addition to the pantheon of Crimean worthies is the Caribbean healer and hotelier Mary Seacole, who ministered to the troops at the war front. In 1857, Seacole released her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. The book was an effort to safeguard her livelihood and secure her place in Crimean history. The latter goal was realized with the rediscovery of the autobiography in the later twentieth century. Black British activists and health care providers found an inspiration in Seacole’s story, sharing it in their communities and building on its legacy. By the millennium, their labors had transformed Seacole into a national icon, with a place in the National Curriculum and the National Gallery. A magisterial statue of Seacole now stands on the South Bank of the Thames, where Florence Nightingale spearheaded efforts in nursing education. Touted in the past as the “Black Nightingale,” Seacole was another unconventional woman with a long legacy. Yet, she is a Crimean protagonist in her own right, known for warmth, humor, and ingenuity. An embodiment of distinctive virtues, Seacole has become a Crimean role model for the twenty-first century.