10. Portrait of Sir Richard Southern, by Margaret Foreman

by Professor Maggie Snowling – 2 July 2020
Professor Maggie Snowling discusses the emotions conveyed by the details in a portrait of one of her predecessors, Sir Richard Southern
Sir Richard Southern.jpg Margaret Foreman, Portrait of Sir Richard Southern, 1978, oil on canvas

Like most newcomers to St. John’s College, I was for many months in awe of the portraits which hang in Hall. Sometime after I joined the College in 2012, I noticed two modern paintings hanging above the exit to the kitchen, each of a former President. One of these was recognisable as our colleague and Honorary Fellow Dr. Bill Hayes, the other was of Sir Richard Southern, President from 1969 to 1981. It was the latter which held my attention because Sir Richard was seated in what I could just make out to be the Long Gallery in my Lodgings. At that point I knew little about Sir Richard or his Presidency but I had already been told that, famously, when the College’s academic achievements were less than to be hoped for, he had called the tutors to account and instructed them (rather than their students) to ‘pull their socks up’! Further investigation revealed that the painting was by a woman and so, in the year of 2000 Women, it was to be moved to my formal dining room for others to see, not least the students who would visit there for President’s Collections. And it was, of course, a useful reminder for their tutors…

The portrait of Sir Richard Southern was painted by Margaret Foreman, a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, who was born in Malaysia (then Malaya) in 1951 and grew up in Guyana. Margaret Foreman has participated in the Royal Academy Summer Show since 1969 and her painting of our former President won the BP Portrait Prize in 1980. The picture tells an important story of St John’s between 1590 and 1640, interspersed with themes from Sir Richard’s life and work.

On the right side of the picture is the bust of Archbishop Laud, which now stands in the Hall of the Lodgings; above the fireplace are the College vestments, now above the stairwell; and to the right of the fireplace, is the Lamb and Flag, which stands proud above the reception area in the new Study Centre. Sir Richard, in the centre front of the painting, is surrounded by books including two of St. Bernard’s works and volumes from Luther and from Aquinas, while in his hand are some lecture notes - a reminder that he was both a scholar and a teacher. Finally, in terms of the objects in the picture, behind him is one of Laud’s original cabinets, now the wardrobe as you enter the Lodgings.

But, aside from the special quality of the portrait, for me the real interest is in some of the unspoken emotions hidden in the picture, many of which resonate with my own. First, in the background, we discern a picture of Richard Southern’s wife reflected in the mirror, coming into the room behind the artist, a reminder of the unfailing support and assistance which the role of President requires. In the background to the picture we see two grandchildren, sitting on the window sill, a reminder of the importance of family and friends. Last, but by no means least, on the floor is a map of Richard Southern’s hometown of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, recalling his devotion to the place – the same place in fact where I went to school and just a few miles from my own hometown. The picture is a strong reminder for me that we each travel here on our own journey and bring with us to College our own heritage.

View the painting on Art UK here.

Professor Maggie SnowlingProfessor Maggie Snowling, President of St John's College