Portrait stories

by Barbara Glasson.

With a couple of hours free on one of my increasingly frequent trips to London, I resolved to visit the National Portrait Gallery. I had forgotten just how engaging the place is and was drawn to a portrait of the physician of immunology Edward Jenner painted on 1803 by the artist James Northcote. The picture shows Jenner in a ponderous pose seated at his desk on which are placed his papers, a book on the origin of vaccines and, if you look very carefully, a cow’s hoof. As in many portraits, the fall of the light onto face and hands, the detail of the background and the expression in the eyes indicate not only the story of a life but the significance of the subject in the course of a wider history; a significance I called to mind again when accompanying my youngest grandson Oliver for his three month ‘jabs’. Thanks to Jenner and his work Oliver and his contemporaries in the U.K. have little fear of contracting the smallpox that killed nearly 20% of their forbears.

Unlike a CV or a passport photo, the art of painting a portrait is not simply a documentation of facts but an engagement in an empathetic relationship. Portraiture seeks to express the essential nature of the subject, not simply through the pose but also in the demeanour and surroundings in which the subject is described. In the case of the Jenner portrait we see a man who has apparently turned aside from his work for a moment with the artifacts of his research around him. We are given an insight into a particular moment in history, an ink pot standing to hand for the real work to resume at any moment.

During the first six months of our Presidential theme ‘So What’s the Story …?’, the Vice President, Professor Clive Marsh and I have heard a lot of stories! We have also begun to ask some follow-on questions, ‘Is God in every story?’, ‘Are all stories of equal value?’, ‘Do we need keepers of stories and story-tellers?’  and crucially for me, ‘What do we do with the stories we hear?’ Being entrusted with a story is a precious thing, is it sufficient to simply receive a story or are their further responsibilities in the light of what we are hearing?

In an academic context, ‘Portraiture’ describes an ethnographic research method that enhances the analysis of narrative. Portraiture seeks to offer an in depth understanding of the subject in relation to all other aspects of their lives, history, environment, faith or other influences. It also takes into account the ‘painters’ or ‘hearers of the story’.  In our context, we might say that the story teller is the subject, the Methodist church, faith perspectives, political environment, historical insights provide the ‘background’ , Clive and I and any other ‘hearers’ are the portraitists.

Pioneer in the research method of portraiture, Lawrence-Lightfoot says:

“In the process of creating portraits, we enter people’s lives, build relationships, engage in discourse, make an imprint….and leave. We engage in acts (implicit and explicit) of social transformation, we create opportunities for dialogue, we pursue silences, and in the process, we face ethical dilemmas and a great moral responsibility. This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality and encounter; this is exciting work that can instigate positive and productive change. We need to appreciate the benign, generous impact of portraiture, even as we recognize the huge ethical responsibilities weighing on the portraitist.”[i]

This insight from the academic study of portraiture is helpful in our understanding of the further responsibilities that come from hearing stories. Portraiture offers a method for ethnographic research which not only enables us to listen to a story but for a story. In the case of the Jenner portrait the artist has only one story in mind, the invention of the vaccine for cowpox, and yet in the depiction of the scientist himself we see a depth of interaction between the man and the work. We see historical content, in costume and artifacts, we see his hands and eyes intent on the task. In listening ‘for’ the story of the invention of vaccine the portrait painter has produced a rich, deep and strong ‘story line’. This reflects back to another of the questions we are asking about God’s presence within the story – are we listening to somebody talking about God or are we listening for God’s presence? Is the God story in the lips of the teller or the ears of the hearer?

Portraiture is a way of capturing a deep and rich narrative and helps us to interpret what we hear with greater insight. Portraiture offers the possibility of nuance and complexity, we literally see the subject differently. And portraiture not only tells us about a person but helps us to question other things too.

So, half way through this Presidential year I see that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of our story-telling theme! I wonder how we are to listen to and for stories, how we are to capture the richness depth of all that we are hearing and what this means for us in relation to the transformation of us as the Methodist Church.

And on that note, I think it’s time for me to go and see Oliver and not just be the nasty person that takes him for his jabs.

[i] Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis, The Art and Science of Portraiture, San Francisco: John Wiley, 1997

7 thoughts on “Portrait stories”

  1. if we are focused on listening for God in the story , might we miss the person telling it? and what lies beyond and around it?


  2. If we are focused on finding God is the story, might we miss the person telling it and what lies beneath, beyond and around it?


  3. I increasingly appreciate visual reminders of God in our lives, though I hadn’t yet seen portraiture in quite the way you suggest. We need all our senses, and the sixth one too, for that. (It was you who permanently changed my theological appreciation of a loaf of bread.)

    At my church yesterday something happened which I’ve never encountered before – we were invited to take home a piece of chalk, specially blessed for the occasion, and write over our door ’20 + C + M + B + 20′. Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar, flanked by the year – but more importantly ‘Christus Mansionem Benedicat’.

    I rather liked that. Christ DOES bless my house, and always has. After all, he lives here too.


  4. I love this. I’m not sure I understand it fully but it gives me much food for thought.
    We’re all familiar with the expression ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and maybe , in the same way, we could say that Truth is in the ear of the receiver? So we can all listen to the same story and take different truths from it, all valid, all relevant, but just different.
    Or, as God said to Moses, ‘I will be what I will be.’

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was interested in your analysis of portraiture. I’m trying to write a biography of my grandfather who worked as a missionary in India for some 40 years. Apart from diaries, photos, articles and reports on his work (which are the equivalent of paint and composition of a portrait) I have to try to enter his personality in the same sort of way as an artist. Thanks for the insight.

    Liked by 1 person

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