Professor Carolyne Larrington, Vice-President (Academic), oversaw the event together with many friends and members of College. Dr. Georgy Kantor, Keeper of Pictures, explored the tradition of commissioning portraits of presidents and other distinguished members and benefactors of St John’s. The practice dated back to the 1690s when a set of portraits, including that of the College’s Founder in 1555, Sir Thomas White, were hung in Hall in frames specially commissioned for the occasion. President’s portraits were commissioned more systematically from the nineteenth century and the College now has a fine collection, representing a variety of styles from a number of respected artists. Particularly noteworthy among more recent portraits in the College’s collection are the 1978 portrait of Sir Richard Southern by Margaret Foreman, the 1986 portrait of Sir John Kendrew by Ruskin Spear and the 2008 portrait of Professor Elizabeth Fallaize, the College’s first female Fellow, by Bryan Organ.
The portrait of Professor Snowling is by Benjamin Sullivan, winner of the 2017 BP Portrait Award and the BP Portrait Award 30 Year Vote, and is set in the Parlour of the President’s Lodgings. He had previously drawn Professor Dorothy Bishop in the same setting for the University’s ‘Diversifying Portraiture’ project. Describing the painting of the portrait, Ben explained the importance of showing not only something of the sitter, but also something of the institution. He chose the Parlour because it had not featured in other Presidents' portraits and also because it had good light, though it was hard to control as it came into the room from both the north and south. The subject is seated by a window and is viewed with a videographer’s line, pointing down from the left, which has the effect of subtly enhancing the flesh tones of the image. The whole picture is focused on Maggie’s face and the strong colouring of the portrait is set against the cream walls of the room.
A number of references in the painting point clearly to the time and place of its creation. Through the window the viewer sees the building work on the College’s new Study Centre during 2017/18 (including a man in a high-vis jacket, possibly a first for an Oxford Head of House’s portrait). The painting was finished in autumn 2018 and the autumn colours of the trees work very well within the overall composition. In addition the large Chinese vase not only helps to hold the composition together, but its opulence also alludes to St John’s ample resources. Finally, there is a glimpse of the portrait of Anne of Cleves, another strong and determined woman and one of the College’s most famous paintings. This portrait hangs in the Parlour and the painting within a painting serves to anchor the subject in the frame; the colours also harmonise well with the rest of the composition which, fortuitously or not, also reflect the black, red and gold of the College’s crest. Cleverly, the artist has reversed the actual portrait so that Anne now holds the carnation, a symbol of love and affection, in her left rather than her right hand, making her left-handed, just like Maggie.
The portrait will hang initially in the new Study Centre when it opens in October 2019.