The British Academy, established by Royal Charter “for the Promotion of Historical, Philosophical and Philological Studies”, is now in its hundredth year. To mark the centenary a group portrait of the Academy’s living presidents, past, present and future, was commissioned from a young painter called Stuart Pearson Wright. The resulting picture, reproduced here, is on public display throughout the summer at the National Portrait Gallery, having recently been awarded first prize in the annual “BP Portrait Award” (a contest which I helped to judge). Its title is intriguing: Gallus Gallus with Still Life and Presidents.
Six elderly men, five of them in dark suits and one in slacks and a jumper, are gathered solemnly in a small, brightly lit room. The London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben can be seen through the window behind them. Their dress and demeanour suggest business in the boardroom; but the table around which they sit is laid as if for tea in an old folks’ retirement home, albeit with one significant difference. In the middle of the immaculately ironed white tablecloth, beside the silver sugar bowl, the opened milk bottle and the plate set out with biscuits, the artist has placed a large and very dead chicken. The Gallus Gallus referred to in the title, this would seem to have been introduced as a vanitas motif: a reminder that all flesh is frail. It performs much the same function, therefore, as the anamorphically rendered skull on the floor in Holbein’s famous double portrait, The Ambassadors.
The artist has vivid memories of the moment when the portrait was first shown to those who had sat for it:
“The unveiling was done at the British Academy by the President elect, Lord Runciman, who’s present in the painting in the form of a polaroid on the table. None of them, him included, had seen it. He pulled the cord back, and everyone stood for a moment in admiration. Then everyone’s eyes went round the painting, taking in the various details, and landed on the chicken. There was this collective look of complete bewilderment. No one knew what to say. The silence was finally broken by my girlfriend, who began to applaud. And of course then everyone joined in. No one knew really how to respond. It was one of those hysterical moments. Of course I was terrified, because I didn’t know how they’d react. They could have been disgusted. They could have asked me to remove it. All sorts of arguments could have ensued. Being quite a headstrong young man, I was determined not to change it.”
The sitters are all, as might be expected, from distinguished backgrounds. Moving around the table in clockwise order from the bottom left, they are: Lord Randolph Quirk, Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London; Sir Anthony Kenny, Oxford philosopher; Sir Tony Wrigley, social scientist at Cambridge University; Professor Keith Thomas, historian and author of Religion and the Decline of Magic; Professor Owen Chadwick, ecclesiastical historian at Cambridge University; and Sir Kenneth Dover, an eminent classicist.
The chicken, which was free range, came from a poultry farm near Hailsham. It was pre-plucked, the giblets were included, and the head was left on.
Sir Tony Wrigley, who as incumbent President has been placed at the centre of the picture, occupying the high-backed presidential chair, seemed a little guarded when I spoke to him about the picture. “It’s clear that some people find it odd, whereas others find it interesting and exciting. I can only speak for myself, and while uncertain about the appropriateness of the symbolism I’m glad that the Academy had the courage to engage someone who is enterprising and original and clearly among other things an excellent portraitist.”
The artist accounts for the presence of the contentious dead chicken by saying that “I would really have liked to paint the sitters naked, in all their vulnerability. It’s not that I don’t value their achievements, but the fact that the picture has been commissioned is already an acknowledgement of what they have done, so I didn’t want to overlabour that. I’m interested in human beings, in how they are underneath the masks and other devices they find to hide behind. So, as I say, I would have liked to depict them naked, and I suppose that because that wasn’t possible I painted a naked chicken. I think it’s a good choice, because after all the skin of a plucked chicken is quite a lot like the skin of an old person.” The device of painting the Presidents at teatime was “another way of bringing these very eminent people down to earth a bit.”
The closest thing to the moral of the portrait may be found in one of the painter’s favourite passages from Hamlet. In Act IV, Scene III, Hamlet muses on the common fate of all mankind, which is to be devoured by worms:“Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.”
Yet for all its blatant and even jarring mundanity, the picture also has a tongue-in-cheek sacramental aspect. It was partly inspired by the painter’s love of the late medieval roof bosses in Norwich Cathedral, in particular a Last Supper from which he borrowed his own, highly compact composition and “slightly distorted, tipping-up perspective”. His portrait is itself a kind of parodic Last Supper. The outgoing President, surrounded by those who have preceded him, holds up a Jammy Dodger as if it were the host. He will die (or at least resign), so that others may live (or at least take up his post).
This mock-religious narrative is carried by an accumulation of detail that recalls the art of early Renaissance Flemish artists. Symbols abound.The inevitable passage of time is alluded to both in the clock of Big Ben outside the window, and in the London Eye, revolving like a modern, secular Wheel of Fortune. The Presidents around the table have themselves been placed at intervals like the figures or numerals on a clock face. Reading the table horologically, we find that Sir Tony Wrigley, whose time it is now (but passing even as we look) is set at noon. So the picture is a drama of succession as well as a burlesque Last Supper: a memorable image, in portrait form, of the cycle whereby power passes from one man to another, and another, resting forever with none.