Hidden in the Canvas: Faculty of Arts and the NGV to Host Major Portrait Conference

What are the stories behind the British and Australian portraits in the National Gallery of Victoria? What were the forces behind their production and how did they find their way onto the walls of a major public gallery?  A Faculty of Arts ARC linkage project, Human Kind: Transforming Identity in Australian and British Portraits in the National Gallery of Victoria 1700-1900, seeks to answer these questions.

Johan Zoffany Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ c.1780 Oil on canvas, 245 x 167 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Everard Studley Miller
Johan Zoffany Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ c.1780 Oil on canvas, 245 x 167 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Everard Studley Miller Bequest, 1967

The project brings together Associate Professor Alison Inglis, School of Culture and Communication, Professor Deirdre Coleman; Robert Wallace Chair in English Literature; Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator, National Gallery of Victoria and Dr Vivien Gaston, ARC Senior Research Fellow, to work on the NGV’s remarkable collection of British and Australian portraits from 1700-1900.

Some of the results have been dramatic. Research has shown the role of Johan Zoffany’s portrait of Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (1780) in reinterpreting Shakespeare’s late play and its key place in the social circles of 18th century London. The portrait has undergone major conservation, with x-ray examination uncovering at least two more portraits hidden beneath, one of which is possibly a portrait of George III, or of an actor playing the role of a king.

The project has also discovered new sources for Joseph Wright of Derby’s little known
early self-portrait (1765), which transforms understanding of the importance of self-portraiture in his work. No less than three copies of this painting have been found, highlighting the way portraits were used to cultivate intellectual relationships and patronage in the artistic and social circles in which Wright moved.

Another example demonstrating the significant personal and public impact of portraits is William Dyce’s 1848 portrait drawing of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) as a boy. Study of this work has led directly to the re-attribution of two related drawings in the Royal Collection, Windsor. Together the three portraits were originally a suite of works commissioned by Queen Victoria; the connection with the NGV drawing raises fascinating questions about their location and purpose.

The portrait has undergone major conservation, which has uncovered at least two more portraits hidden beneath the surface
The portrait has undergone major conservation, which has uncovered at least two more portraits hidden beneath the surface.

The project will culminate in an interdisciplinary conference to be held at both the University of Melbourne and the NGV on 8-11 September this year. It promises to be the largest gathering of international and Australian scholars to focus on portraits and has attracted scholars and curators from leading UK institutions. Keynote speakers include David Solkin, FBA, Dean and Deputy Director, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Martin Myrone, Lead Curator, Tate Britain; Kate Retford, Birkbeck College, University of London and David Hansen, Australian National University. Mark Hallett, Director, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London will attend as Session Chair and join a round table discussion.

The conference will enable academics, historians, art historians, curators, Faculty of Arts alumni and the general public to participate in a dynamic discussion about the way portraits are enmeshed in our deepest and most complex social relationships.

Registration for the conference is free. Conference sessions will be held at the University of Melbourne. Keynote lectures will be held at the Clemenger theatre, NGV and are open to the public. Find out more about the Human Kind international conference.

The conference has been supported with funds for student bursaries from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.