Fellows at St John’s College

Last year I received an interesting and challenging private commission from my former college, St John’s in Cambridge. A group of senior fellows asked me to make a drawing of their group at Desserts, an informal meeting of friends and colleagues after dinner in Hall. The drawing was to be a group portrait and also a recording of the genial  atmosphere of the evening, of the deep red room, dark wooden furniture and decanters of port lit by candlelight.

I was invited to an evening to make preparatory sketches. Tucked in the corner of the room with a glass for myself, I spent a merry time drawing the huddle of men around the table, overseen by portraits of the great and good of the past. But turning these sketches into a highly-finished and recognisable group portrait was tricky.



Looking around for group portraits, I was very taken with this portrait of the Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard by Dutch Master Frans Hals (below), in that despite their matching uniforms each face has an individual character, and their arrangement has been carefully placed so that each person is visible.



Fellows of Gonville & Caius College at Desserts by Paul Gopal-Chowdhury shows a similar scene. It’s beautifully crisp painting and also looks like it has been made by many individual studies stitched together.


Below is a wonderful portrait of the fellows of the Royal Academy by the late Leonard Rosoman, which also reads as multiple portraits, arranged around a clever isometric long table, reminding me of a medieval composition.



Using sketches and photographs I tried out several different compositions. I didn’t want to make a naturalistic or realistic picture as such, but in the tradition of group portraits I had been looking at, artificially design the layout to exaggerate the atmosphere of the evening, the closeness of conversation. I also didn’t want to muddy the picture with too many colours or take it close to a painting: keeping it as a drawing made it closer to a live recording, a piece of reportage rather than a formal piece.

Here are sketches I dabbled with in trying different compositions and angles.





And the final drawing: a detailed picture taking in the whole room and furniture.