I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe that we are finding ourselves in December already – where did the year go?!
The challenges posed by Covid-19 continued, of course, but so did the opportunities and the thrill of excitement offered by trialling innovative approaches across all our activities.
On a mission
The year got off to an exciting start with the launch of our new Vision and Mission, a crucial part of Vision 2024, the transformative strategy for our centenary.
The work with our architects Purcell continued apace, with the hugely satisfying achievement of reaching a major milestone in the development of our capital project in late summer. We are very actively seeking funding for the next stages of the development and I am looking forward to sharing progress in future Newsletters.
the generous support from the E P A Cephalosporin Fund for our Collecting Covid project that we are running jointly with the Bodleian Libraries which enabled us to engage with our audiences in new and exciting ways
Portrait artist and photographer Fran Monks sat down over Zoom with Izzy Treyvaud — one of our Gallery supervisors — to explore photography as a gateway to celebrating the extraordinary stories of ‘ordinary’ people.
Why did you choose photography as a career – and why portraiture in particular?
That’s starting with a really big question!
It kind of happened by accident.
For five years, I worked as an environmentalist for Shell, the oil company. I found it really hard, because it’s very difficult to change such a big organization. So I came out of that wanting to find out more about how people change the world around them.
At that point, photography was just a hobby.
Then, because of my husband’s job, I had the opportunity to live in Washington DC. Sometimes being overseas helps you do something that you might be scared to do in your own country.
As I got more work as a photographer, I started to explore how you make a difference by talking to — and photographing — people who are themselves making a difference.
Photography really works as a kind of gateway into having those conversations. I just like the opportunity to tell a story through a picture of a person.
We’re all fascinated by people, but certain types of stories are told more than others. And I found it really engaging and enjoyable to tell stories that weren’t being told so much, but also were quite positive.
I enjoy all the techy stuff, but I think if I didn’t have at the core of it that connection with another person — that’s what completes it for me.
How much do you plan in advance?
I’ve had to learn over the years that if you go in with a very clear idea of an image — and you’re only focused on that — you won’t necessarily get the bigger picture and the connection with the person.
If you’re really well prepared, it does allow you to relax more in the moment, and then do the chatting and the connecting and the finding out.
But you can’t always be prepared!
So when I’m doing Zoom portraiture, there are so many elements where I don’t know what I’m going to find:
What’s the bandwidth going to be like?
What’s the house going to be like?
It’s the same when you visit someone on location for a one-off portrait — I won’t necessarily know what I’m going to find.
Sometimes the things that you hadn’t planned are what make the portrait interesting.
Photographers often say to me about the Zoom portrait, “How do you take it? You can’t control the light!”.
You have to let go of that control — but sometimes the results are fantastic.
Your Zoom portraits combine image and words to tell the story —was that always your plan?
It’s evolved over time.
The most rewarding thing about my work is when you’re getting people to think about different types of stories.
Part of that probably crystallized when I was working for some of the Oxford colleges.
A lot of them are thinking now about who’s on their walls and trying to make it more representative of the current student community.
Not all diversity is visible, so as a photographer you can’t always show that people are different.
I appreciated how much it meant to some of those people who otherwise would not have been represented in that kind of space. It really made me appreciate — re-appreciate — the power of that.
And it made me want to do it as much as possible: really respectful portraiture of people who wouldn’t normally be up there.
I’ve realized over time that for me, you can never tell the whole story with a still image. It needs text — a short story — as well.
I feel you’re really getting something more out of the image that way.
And it’s just more fun for me!
What’s the impact of working over Zoom for you —and the people you’re photographing?
In some ways, Zoom has opened up the world.
One of the first people I photographed was a lady in Melbourne who has been bed-bound for 20 years. She said to me:
You know, it’s amazing that I can participate in things now. Before I felt much more excluded; now everyone’s online, so now I can really feel part of it.
The interesting stories are the people like a woman I spoke to by the roadside in Malawi. She was trying to get back to her home village, so she gave her phone to some guy who was walking by. He held it and we took a picture.
That was her reality, but at least she was able to participate. Before she might have been completely excluded.
I want to carry on doing Zoom photography because I can access people who normally wouldn’t be able to get their story out there.
Part of me doesn’t want to let that go.
Why did you turn your attention to Covid-19 and the pandemic?
At the start, I was just photographing people who were in lockdown, because I realized we were living through an historic time.
And increasingly I began thinking that this is also about celebrating the under-celebrated.
If you make good images, then in 100 years, 200 years, this is what people are going to look back at.
So you’re thinking:
What stories do I want people in the future to be telling about now?
I realized there were lots of great pictures of the doctors and scientists, but just staying at home is harder to capture — because everyone was at home!
So I wanted to make those images and tell that story. And the vaccine trail participants just came to mind for me.
That’s a huge project – how did you get started?
I started with a friend who was one of the first 20 participants.
Once I had that picture, I could post it on Twitter and say, “Does anyone else want to be part of this?”.
And it just snowballed from there.
What was really special about meeting people on the vaccine trials was that they’d made this choice to do something, which I think is quite brave — and very, very important for getting us out of the pandemic.
Many said they’d been told to stay at home and do nothing and that was how they were contributing to keeping people safe. But they wanted to actually do something rather than nothing, and this is one way that they could do it.
Without them, we wouldn’t know how good these vaccines are — but a lot of them hadn’t really had the opportunity to talk about it.
I think it’s very easy with medical trials — I certainly am guilty of this — to think “Oh, that’s something that other people do”.
So it was really interesting to find out why people had taken that step.
There was one volunteer from the US who’d been a school bus driver her entire life. Then she found herself retired in a pandemic and thought, “Well, I can do something about this”.
And she just did it. She used to try drive two hours to the clinic to do all her tests.
Most of the people were very healthy themselves, apart from one young guy who was diabetic, so that was even braver, I think.
What are the main differences for you as a photographer working over Zoom compared with ‘normality’?
In ‘normal’ times, I like to photograph people on their home ground, because it’s their environment and they’re more relaxed.
What I found with Zoom is that people are still on their home ground, but I’m not actually in their space.
So they are completely in control, and I find that people are even more relaxed because of that. You have to collaborate — hold the screen and get them to show you around — and it can be quite challenging.
At the end of the day, I’m just on a screen, so I’m not imposing. And I think that changes the dynamic between the photographer and the sitter.
How did you frame the shots and choose the background when working over Zoom?
You try and find some kind of connection with people. Because it’s a collaboration, you do get to know people much better through the Zoom process than you would just by photographing them in real life.
So once we log on, we have a chat and I ask people to show me their space. Then I decide what might work.
We have to try a few things — as I say, it’s very collaborative.
Sometimes there’s someone there who can hold the computer, but more often than not people are on their own. It’s a very constrained process, which I like because it makes me take pictures that I wouldn’t normally take.
I like a very simple sort of aesthetic, and my instinct would be to cut out lots of distraction. But you can’t this way, so they’re usually much more wide-angled than I would normally go for.
After a while, I thought, “Hang on, we can move away from the camera and that makes it more interesting and more like a portrait.”.
I always chuckle, because people often say, “Oh, I haven’t tidied up!”, but I say, “This is Zoom — don’t worry. It’s all kind of blurry anyway!”.
It often surprises people that I actually photograph my screen with my camera.
I experimented a bit, and it’s just more interesting. Sometimes you get this ‘moiré’ effect which means there’s kind of a grid over the picture, or swirly lines.
I wanted to show that the picture is made with digital layer upon digital layer, rather than trying to be something that it isn’t.
But I do like the fact that, when I print them, the black border from my computer looks a little bit like an old starter in print.
When you’re working on Zoom, you’re in every image. How does that affect your work?
I love that!
Not because I love seeing my image in there, but having been a portrait photographer for a long time, I’m always thinking:
“What was the photographer saying?”
“What was the relationship between the two of them?”
Because the portrait is a reflection of the person that they’re interacting with, I think.
For me, having that little thumbnail there makes that more explicit.
So anyone who looks at the picture will remember, “Oh, yeah, there was someone making this picture as well”.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but — I’m never in the family photos!
Photographer and portrait artist Fran Monks was in conversation with Izzy Treyvaud.
Watch Fran Monks In Conversation on YouTube with Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, vaccine trial volunteer Dr Helen Salisbury, and History of Science Museum Director Dr Silke Ackermann. Chaired by economist, journalist, and broadcaster Tim Harford.
Perhaps in light of these current events, now is an apt time to think about the images we have on portraits and those we have on display in public places — measuring with contemporary eyes whether they are still appropriate and the sort of attitudes they are promoting.
The first was to identify why Chardin’s portrait was chosen to be on display in the History of Science Museum.
The second was to distinguish the boy in the background and try to find out who he might have been.
In the portrait, Chardin is staring out at the viewer with a confident, enigmatic smile. He looks reputable and intelligent, and perhaps this is why his portrait has been undisputed in the museum setting for so long.
Meanwhile, the young boy has a metal cuff around his neck and is depicted gazing downwards, as though in shame or perhaps to show that he is in awe of Chardin.
The label accompanying the painting did not reference the boy and I wondered whether this representation of a slave should gather more attention.
Indeed, it seems troubling to have this image on public display in the contemporary age.
I couldn’t help wondering what this portrait could potentially communicate to someone seeing it on display in the museum. And furthermore could it convey and identify a certain set of undesirable values to the museum?
I knew that I wanted to find out more about this portrait and find out why exactly it had been chosen by the museum to be placed at the top of the stairs — in the direct eyeline of everyone ascending to the second floor collections.
I began my journey of tracing the provenance of the portrait — and identified a series of questions that I wanted answers to.
Who was Sir John Chardin?
Firstly, I wanted to figure out what exactly was Chardin’s connection to the History of Science Museum?
To me, Chardin was not an instantly recognisable figure to many and I struggled to recall any connection between him and any particular scientific endeavours or innovations.
The label in the HSM had already informed me that Sir John Chardin (16 November 1643 – 5 January 1713) was a French Huguenot refugee, jeweller, traveller, diarist, and agent of the Dutch East India Company.
This book is a record of various influential seventeenth-century gentlemen and their portraits. I found that the original portrait once belonged to the Grenville Family and was sold by Christies in 1977 as Portrait of a Gentleman, possibly of the Grenville family and so was assumed to be of another sitter.
Also, a fictive narrative has been written by the author Danielle Digne based around the life of Sir John Chardin entitled Le Joaillier d’Ispahan(The Jeweller of Isfahan).
Searching the archives
I contacted the National Portrait Gallery and arranged a visit to their archives (this was scheduled for April 2020 but unfortunately due to the Covid-19 pandemic was not able to go ahead).
As the copy was gifted by the Ashmolean, I thought the next place to look should be the Ashmolean archives, so I contacted them and arranged to visit the Western Art Print Room on 19th February 2020.
The Ashmolean had a number of useful documents and files on the portrait. I found that the portrait of Chardin held in the History of Science Museum is attributed to the artist Bartholomew Dandridge. I also found that another copy was made and is held in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, USA.
Before the copy was gifted to the History of Science Museum by the Ashmolean, it belonged to the Bodleian library in Oxford. It came to be in the Bodleian, it is suspected, after being gifted by Chardin’s eldest son in 1746. It was transferred to the History of Science museum in 1951.
This is an interesting topic for further research, as the motives for the erection of this portrait at this time are unknown to me, and not easily deciphered by the portrait itself or its frame.
In addition, I am intrigued that the decision to place this colonial portrait in the gallery was made within the last 70 years.
The visible and the invisible in Dandridge’s painting
As my quest to find out more about the young child in the painting seemed to be coming to few solid conclusions, I decided to research more on the broader topic of black figures in eighteenth century European artworks.
I visited the British Baroque exhibition at Tate Britain to examine their method of representing portraits with colonial underpinnings and those which featured representations of slaves.
Studying the labels used to accompany these portraits, I found that they included posters warning people before entering that the exhibition contained images of slaves. I wondered whether the History of Science Museum would benefit from altering its label to be more transparent about the colonial underpinnings of this work of art.
A particular painting which stood out to me in this exhibition was ‘Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, as Diana’ (1684) by Benedetto Gennari.
This painting features a wealthy and prominent white woman, surrounding by young black children, who seem to be positioned in the same manner as dogs or creatures who, in the period, were seen as lower than humans (of course, white humans).
Interestingly, the plaque accompanying this piece actually condemns the depictions of the black figures as ‘shocking and dehumanising’.
This acknowledgement of these representations as negative demonstrates the desire of the gallery to approach the tricky and unfortunate depictions of black figures in historical art.
Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, as Diana(c. 1688) by Benedetto Gennari
I asked myself, ‘Is this the way forward for historical artworks depicting these slave figures?’.
Some useful books and articles on the black figure in historical art
I found it interesting to read about how the writer was captured by the figure of the black boy in a painting by Largillierre and inspired to explore his background. The research undertaken by the author of the article seemed close my own.
The conclusions in the article were that the boy’s presence serves to add metaphorical connotations to the white female sitter and the artist essentially used him to compliment her.
Here, Erickson regards the tendency to invisibility of the black figure in art.
They are so often depicted in background or subservient positions to a supposedly more important ‘main’ sitter, just as the young boy in Dandridge’s piece stands behind Chardin, carrying out a service to him and staring at him — as we as an audience are also guided to do.
Seeing the lost faces in European art
Erickson’s work particularly stood out to me as he implied that a lot of European artworks from around this period employed the black or ‘ethnic’ figure as a symbol of the exotic, or to emphasise how culturally knowledgeable and well-travelled the main sitter is. In Chardin’s case, based off his career, this may well be the case.
All these interesting finds about depictions of black people in historical art made me all the more determined to find out who the boy in the portrait was, and why he was there. I felt disheartened to think he could be a fictive instrument employed by the artist to serve Chardin’s appearance.
The Art Historian Shearer West has stated that portraits and their frames often enclose ‘timeless values and heritage’. By this, she is suggesting that they often subliminally present ideologies on behalf of whoever erected them and those who position them in certain areas.
Therefore we cannot ignore the potential of this portrait for inflicting messages steeped in prejudice on its viewers. To explore and fully address these broader racial matters, we must reconsider the role of this boy.
Bringing the boy to the foreground
Although it has been hard to trace him, we can do better by him at least by reframing how we interpret this portrait. We can choose not to overlook his presence and instead see him as a representative of all those forced into servitude before and after the seventeenth century. Although their voices have been lost and quietened for so long, they have a chance to be heard (and seen) now. We can show our allegiance by bringing this boy from the background, to the foreground of our mind’s eye.
In my next Blog, I explore how I opened up the issues surrounding this portrait to the public.
Camille Leadbetter is a History of Art student at the University of Oxford.