Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.

OSCAR WILDE (1854-1900)


Picture Yourself

It’s a fact that we don’t really know for sure what Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Mozart, Newton or Jesus looked like. They all lived before the advent of photography and, therefore, all we have are engravings and painted portraits. And you have to wonder how accurate they were; portraits were almost always painted to order and often deliberately flattering – the historical equivalent of ‘airbrushing’ today. In addition, portraits are often what the artist sees, rather than a wholly realistic representation.
The earliest portraits were of royalty, generally because they were the people with the time and the assets to commission one. The earliest non-royal portraits were done for funerals in Egypt. These 900 or so ‘mummy portraits’, found in Faiyum, were remarkably well-preserved by the dry climate and are surprisingly modern in appearance considering that they were painted sometime between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. Most of the portraits are of young people or children but it is generally believed that the portraits were probably not that accurate. Detailed analysis has shown that the painters depicted faces in a repetitive and formulaic way; all that changed were the hairstyles, jewellery, facial hair and clothing. In this respect, the mummy portraits were more like police ‘photofits’ than true portraits as the artists worked from a template rather than making detailed observations of the unique features of specific individuals.

Arresting Faces

The police have used a form of ‘photofit’ or ‘identikit’ to identify suspects of crimes for over 100 years. Properly called a Facial Composite, it’s a graphical representation of an eyewitness's memory of a face. In the early days this was done by a skilled artist asking the witness to describe the suspect feature by feature and drawing the portrait by hand (This is still the preferred method of the FBI). However, in the late 1960s, various systems came along in which the composites could be assembled like a jigsaw from a large selection of ready-made images of eyes, ears, facial shapes etc. In the 1980s, computers allowed for more advanced electronic compositing and the systems have become ever more advanced ever since. There is also now software that can do facial reconstructions based on human skulls and ‘ageing’ programs that can show what a missing child may look like as the years pass.
Facial composites are often the subject of press ridicule when they don’t appear to look like the suspect. However, the composites are created solely from a witness’s description; if the witness says that the composite is correct, there is nothing more that the artist can do. Ex-police artist Jan Szymczuk explains: 'It's much easier recognising someone again than describing them bit by bit. What I try to create is called a 'type likeness' - I'm just the witness's pad and pencils. I can't go beyond what someone tells me, even if I think it looks horrible or daft. The fact that people’s memories aren’t perfect and that they were in a stressful situation at the time compounds the problem. That said, many composites are good enough to jog people’s memories and identify a suspect.’
As an experiment we asked Jan to create images of five ‘suspects’ solely from our descriptions of their faces. Three of them were relatives chosen at random. The other two were quite well-known. We found it surprisingly difficult to describe what a person looks like without reference to anything other than their facial features. But here’s what Jan came up with. Do you recognise these two men?

SAMUEL BUTLER(1835-1902)

Every man's work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.

Your Bard

It’s natural for us to form mental images of what people look like based upon their voices and/or the things they produce such as art, writing and music. So it can be quite a shock when we finally get to see the person and they are nothing like we expected. Often, moving a show from radio to TV entails a change of cast as a voice actor may not ‘look’ like the character; someone tall and thin can play a chubby short character on radio and women often play children. I’m sure you have an image in your head of what William Shakespeare looked like, for instance. But how accurate is it?
There are six known portraits of the bard ... but all of them have facial features markedly different from each other. The best known is the so-called ‘Droeshout Portrait’ engraving that accompanied the First Folio print of 1623. But Droeshout never met Shakespeare and was only 15 when Shakespeare died in 1616. So what did Droeshout base it on? People claim it is a good representation because in Ben Jonson’s foreword to the folio he says ‘O, could he have drawne his wit as well, in brasse, as he hath his face.’ However, Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare and a famous wit and some claim the comment may have been sarcastic. In the Droeshout portrait, Shakespeare is shown with a thin moustache, no beard and a hairstyle not unlike Bill Bailey’s.
The other portraits include the ‘John Sanders Portrait’ where he is red-headed and has much more hair, the ‘John Soest Stratford Portrait’, more jowly and designer stubble, the ‘Chandos Portrait’, full beard and an earring, the ‘Faithborne Portrait’ appears to be a copy of the Droeshout and the ‘Hilliard Miniature’ in which Will has long blonde locks and what appears to be Billy Connolly’s beard.

EDVARD MUNCH (1863-1944)

When I paint a person, his enemies always find the portrait a good likeness.

Hideously Unlike her

The only authenticated portrait of Jane Austen is a loose and incomplete drawing by her sister Cassandra, which a family member described it as being ‘hideously unlike’ her. Today, it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In 2003 the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, Somerset, unveiled a new painting by police artist Melissa Dring which they believe is the most realistic likeness yet.

Royal Portraits

Queen Elizabeth II has sat for more portraits – over 140 – than any other monarch. Her first, by Philip Alexius de László, was commissioned when she was only seven years old.

The earliest portrait in the National Portrait Gallery is of Henry VII from 1505 by an unknown artist.


In 2004, Queen Elizabeth II  sat for her first hologram portrait.

The smallest and the Biggest

The smallest portrait in London’s National Portrait Gallery is a 17th century miniature of Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orleans by (believed) Jean Petitot. It is about the same size as an adult man’s thumbnail.

The largest portrait in the gallery is John Singer Sargent’s ‘General Officers of World War I’ which, at 5.3m (17ft) long is 52,000 times larger than the smallest.

PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)

When you start with a portrait and try to find pure form by abstracting more and more, you must end up with an egg.

In 1960, Queen Elizabeth II  became the first UK monarch to have her portrait on a banknote.