The Founders of Past and Present

I have been asked to provide information for the British Academy’s obituary of the late Sir John Elliott on the circumstances of the commission to paint the founders of Past and Present for the National Portrait Gallery. It is more than twenty years ago and my recollection of the detail is now more than a bit foggy, but I discovered that I had given a talk about it a couple of years later to a session at the Anglo-American conference of historians in July 2002, when, as the talk reveals, I had already forgotten some of the detail as to how it came about (that was the point of the talk).

Since I had some difficulty locating the talk and since it contains details as to how the picture came about, I am putting it down here as a reasonably contemporary record of one of the more ambitious portrait commissions during my time at the NPG:-

I am pleased to have an opportunity to place on record the circumstances which led to the commissioned portrait of some of the founders of Past and Present.   Even at the time that the portrait was unveiled on February 15, 2000, I realised that any portrait, like any historical event, is the product of a whole range of contingent circumstances which become difficult to reconstruct, even if ― or, perhaps, especially if ― they are in the recent past.   The portrait of the founders of Past and Present represents a particular moment and mood in public attitudes to history, such that it is itself now a document of that moment.   I will endeavour to reconstruct that moment.


The idea that the founders of Past and Present should be painted was first proposed at a meeting of the journal’s editorial board.    According to Joanna Innes writing after the portrait was completed,

It was initially David Cannadine’s idea.   He aired it on and off in informal convesation around some of our thrice-yearly board meetings, and won Paul Slack over.   Paul then took it to the board, at the next meeting when he happened to be chairing as vice-chariman (John Elliott being away somewhere).   It was agreed that David would approach you.   I think you were going to dinner at his house, and seemed open to the idea.   I believe Paul then approached you more formally, and…so it all went on from there.[1]

The first I remember of the proposal was the telephone call from Paul Slack.   He explained that the editorial board of Past and Present had been considering how best to celebrate the journal’s founders.   They had come up with the idea of commissioning a group portrait.   Was there any way in which the National Portrait Gallery could help?  And would the National Portrait Gallery be interested in the result?

It happened that, as he possibly anticipated, he struck a sensitive chord.   I was conscious that historians were not particularly well represented in the modern collections of the gallery.   There was a not especially good portrait of A.J.P Taylor by Maggi Hambling, commissioned by the gallery right at the end of A.J.P Taylor’s life, when he was suffering from Alzheimers (1.  Maggi Hambling, A.J.P Taylor, NPG 5988).  But, otherwise, in an institution dedicated to the public understanding of history, there were precious few contemporary portraits of those people who are themselves historians.   In an institution which has busts of Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay and Lord Stanhope over the front door, there was no portrait of their modern day equivalents:  no portrait of Hugh Trevor-Roper, only a photograph of the Regius Professors of Oxford taken by Arnold Newman in 1978 (2.  Arnold Newman, Regius Professors, NPG P150(47));  no portrait of Jack Plumb, in spite of the fact that he was a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1961 to 1982 (although I should say that this has since been rectified by a gift from his estate of a portrait drawing by John Ward (3.  John Ward, JH Plumb, NPG 6605));  no portrait of Geoffrey Elton or E.P. Thompson or Michael Howard.   In amongst a sea of portraits of politicians and celebrities and pop stars, there was no-one to represent the profession of history, except a small portrait of Eric Hobsbawm by Georg Eisler acquired in November 1990 (4.  Georg Eisler, Eric Hobsbawm, NPG 6111);  a portrait of Owen Chadwick by Derek Hill, which was probably acquired at least in part because he was chairman of Trustees (5.  Derek Hill, Owen Chadwick, NPG 6132);  and a photograph of Simon Schama by Sally Soames which, truth to tell, I have never seen exhibited (6.  Sally Soames, Simon Schama, NPG P650).   I was perfectly conscious of the omission.   So, I was something of a soft touch when it came to a proposal to commission a portrait of not one, but seven, leading members of the historical profession all together.

By the end of the telephone conversation, I had somehow found myself agreeing to a proposal that the National Portrait Gallery should itself commission a portrait of the founders of Past and Present and that it was likely to cost a great deal more than the journal was likely to be able to afford.   I think that, even then, it may have been in my mind that it would be a good idea to commission the artist Stephen Farthing, who I had been trying to persuade to do something for the gallery because he was at the time working on a series of pictures based on precedents in historical portraiture ― free interpretations of the traditions of grand manner portraiture, including a sort of new wave Louis XV based on the portrait by Rigaud (7.  Stephen Farthing, Louis XV after Rigaud).   He was Ruskin Professor of the University of Oxford, which meant that he was based in Oxford.   I had a hunch that I could interest him in the idea of this commission.

At this point, I realise that my recollection of the exact circumstances as to how the commission was negotiated is already defective.   Luckily, the National Portrait Gallery has always had a strong documentary aspect to it and I find in the archive a letter which I wrote to Stephen Farthing on 26 November 1998 which explains the conception of the portrait at that time:

I was, as I hope you realised, very serious about wanting you to consider the idea of undertaking some form of group portrait of the major historians who have been associated with the historical journal Past and Present.   As I understand it they are:  Rodney Hilton – the Marxist historian of medieval England;  Lawrence Stone – the historian of the Tudor aristocracy;  Christopher Hill – the Marxist historian of the English revolution;  Eric Hobsbawm – the Marxist historian of the 19th century;  Keith Thomas – the less Marxist historian on witchcraft;  and John Elliott – the not-at-all Marxist historian of Spain [I should perhaps interpolate at this point that I am slightly embarrassed to find that I was so free in my thumbnail sketches of the subjects’ scholarly work].   I think it would be necessary to think of some form of composition which would allow you to treat each of them individually (I gather both Rodney Hilton and Christopher Hill are very elderly), while at the same time making it clear that they form a coherent group of historians all of whom have made a major contribution to the study of the subject area (particularly through the investigation of social history).   I think as a group they would be interesting;  particularly if the portrait can in some way convey the sense of the importance of history to contemporary society.[2]

On 4 December 1998, I received a letter from Stephen Farthing accepting the commission:

I am writing in response to your interesting invitation to, take on, as it were, “The Historians”.   Knowing two of them, John Elliott and Keith Thomas I suspect that this might prove to be quite a challenge, but, for better or worse, I can confirm I am up for it.

Stephen Farthing threw himself into the task with enthusiasm and one of the great aspects of the picture is that its gestation is extraordinarily well documented.   After it was completed, Stephen handed over a large amount of material describing the process which led to the final picture and which, I suspect, I am nearly the first person to go through.   It includes his notes on the early history of Past and Present:

First issue Feb. 1952

All members of the British communist party

By 1948 communists quietly ceased to be hired in universities

John Morris decided to start a journal

1.  The journal aimed to cover all history

2.  Rejected purely monographic research

3.  Articles must be written in ordinary english and be comprehensible to non specialist readers

There are sketches in which it is possible to see him mapping out the composition, which he did by talking to the sitters and trying to plot the nature of their relationship.   There is a photocopy of the first issue of Past and Present, issued in February 1952 and costing nine shillings.   There is an e-mail describing a visit Farthing undertook to Princeton to visit Laurence Stone on 7 March 1999:

What a nice man, his memory didn’t seem to be as bad as I had been led to believe it may be.   We talked continuously from 10am to 2.40 by which time we had finished lunch, most of a big bottle of white wine and he had driven me back to Nassau Lodge to catch the airport bus.   Whilst talking before lunch I photographed him and made a couple of drawings.   In some ways the trip seemed unnecessary, he seemed more worried about travelling than his health and was concerned that at 79 you cannot hire a car.   So in England he would be a victim of public transport.   He still drives in the U.S.A and although he confesses to getting a little confused negotiating roundabouts, he certainly didn’t worry me on our round trip from the hotel to his house.

Once the painting was complete, I asked Stephen to record and describe how it came into being.   At this point, it is probably best if I show you a slide of the finished painting (8.  Stephen Farthing, Historians of Past and Present, NPG 6518).   You have, I hope, been provided with a postcard of it in your information packs and I should perhaps apologise for the fact that it has recently been displaced from our balcony gallery replaced by our Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen.

I can provide you with an account of the composition in Stephen’s words:

The Past and Present Portrait is an attempt at putting together seven historians who through their editorial roles in organising a journal became associated, but now can no longer be assembled as a group.   From the beginning it was never a possibility that they would stand together in a real space;

the only option was to invent a place as a meeting.

To design the painting and establish an argument I compiled a questionnaire (blank attached) and met each of the sitters, the idea being that they should furnish me with enough information about themselves and the way that they believed they fitted together so as to allow me to paint a picture that they had unwittingly designed (the completed questionnaires are now lodged in the N.P.G)

Perhaps the most interesting part of his description is when he comes on to describe the actual features of the painting:

I set the picture in the latter days of modernism 1950-60 and by doing so brought some of its cold dynamic in through the paint handling and style of the picture.   The book shelves are not a backdrop but painted to be of equal importance to the sitters, books are after all both the product and focus of their lives.   The spines are torn off to reveal the structure of the book and so as not to confuse the bigger picture with the anecdotal.   They stand on a carpet woven to reflect the current issue of their journal and in doing so, like the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth declare their ownership.   In Utopia the carpet would be woven and placed on the floor before the painting.   The painting is painted in oils on cotton duck with a little beeswax and turpentine as a medium.   It was made between January and November 1999 from drawings, photographs and live sittings in my studio in Oxford.   I travelled to Princeton to make studies of Lawrence Stone but he didn’t make it back to Oxford for the final sitting.   All the other sitters I met and photographed twice and painted once in the studio.

This is with the exception of Eric Hobsbawm.

Farthing concludes this account with a nice summary of the picture and its intentions:

The aim was to catch a reasonable likeness of each of them, weld them together in a space and a set of relationships which reflected the story they told.   Paul Slacks pipe burns on the table behind Eric, light leaks in from all sides of the picture to fracture the illusion and build a bigger picture.   To establish the bigger picture being what each of the sitters saw as being the purpose of history today.


I hope that by now I have given you enough information about the circumstances surrounding the commissioning and acquisition of the picture.   I want now to stand back and reflect on the account that I have given you.

The first reflection, which ought to be obvious, is how staggeringly fallible the human memory is.   This is a picture which I was closely involved with throughout the process of commissioning and whose progress I followed all through the time that it was being painted.   I have talked at some length with the artist and at least some of the sitters about it.   But I am conscious already how partial and particular my account has been, how essentially inadequate to the full circumstances as to how the painting came into being.   Even at the time that the picture was unveiled, I realised that I had forgotten some of the particulars as to how it had come about and had to e-mail Joanna Innes to remind me.   Now, only a couple of years later, I am much more dependent on the written sources than I am on what I can remember.   Already there is a mis-match between my memory and the written sources.

Next, it is important to note how extraordinarily partial the written sources are.   They do not reveal a fact of great importance to the history of the picture, which is that the great majority of the sitters intensely dislike it.   The history that I have given you is a version of an official history compiled from sources, which are largely in the public domain.   It gives you only the words of the principal actors, not the thoughts of the sitters, nor what people thought of the portrait when it went on display.

Next, although I have tried to give you a fair and impartial account, I have left a great deal out.   I have omitted part of Joanna Innes’s e-mail which gives a fuller account of the background to the portrait.   I have omitted the role of Colin Matthew who, as a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, acted as an important mediator in the later phases of the project.   I have omitted Conrad Russell’s comments made at a meeting of the Board of Trustees when the project was discussed.   I had completely forgotten that the idea of the project was first put to me by David Cannadine.   In other words ― it is a point which is obvious but nonetheless needs to be spelt out ― I, who would expect to be a reasonably good documentary source for this particular picture, am myself seriously and already defective.  

The final point I would like to make is a recognition of how extraordinarily ephemeral much of this documentation is.   Two of the sitters are already dead.   Much of the documentation would not exist if Stephen Farthing had been less meticulous in preserving it.   And, perhaps most importantly, I realise in writing this account that the Freedom of Information Act may paradoxically act as an enemy to the survival of good quality, contemporary source material, because if Stephen or I had known that what we wrote was going to be publicly available so soon after the event, it is at least possible that we might have made slightly less strenuous efforts to preserve it.

[1] Joanna Innes to Charles Saumarez Smith, e-mail, Tuesday 15 February 2000 (National Portrait Gallery, RP 6518).

[2] National Portrait Gallery, RP 6518


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