When a 500-year-old institution, who in that time has had three female leaders, replaces a wall full of portraits of men with a wall full of portraits of women, it makes a powerful statement. But where do you go from there?
The temporary portrait hang for the recent exhibition ‘This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine’ featured an all-women line up of pioneering doctors such as Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, and all but one comprised of paintings on loan for the exhibition. In the museum’s newest installation, however, the most recent commission of immediate past-president Professor Dame Jane Dacre remains centre-stage in a bold and visually-diverse selection of RCP portraits from the 1900s onwards.
Power vs personality
The RCP is one of very few organisations that still commissions portraits of its presidents. In contrast to the earlier portraits in the collection, 20th century portrait sitters began to favour individuality over prestige, choosing to be painted in increasingly modern styles. Symbols of authority, status and ceremony are replaced by informal compositions and objects that reveal the sitter’s personality beyond their role as physician: a Nobel Peace Prize winner, an accomplished pianist, a lover of the outdoors.
Who made the cut?
From presidents and officers to a king’s physician and a World War I colonel, the personalities in the new display, not just of former RCP presidents; these prominent figures of medicine have all contributed to the world of medicine today. Their achievements include reducing health inequalities, lobbying for women to become fellows, and challenging the gender pay gap.
On selection, however, some of our favourites didn’t quite fit aesthetically, including a wonderful self-portrait by chest physician Clive Riviere: the pioneer of artificial pneumothorax treatment. At just around A4 size it would be lost on the large wall.
Installing a group of portraits, the highest sitting around 5 metres off the floor, is no mean feat and takes considerable planning. The weight of the portrait is also an important consideration. Comments of favouring personality over power aside, it could be said that the size of the frame is an indication of the individual’s status!
A team of art handlers, a scaffolding tower and many, many cups of coffee later, the final painting was hung in place and the finished hang revealed. Bold new flashes of colour now brightened the Lasdun Hall on a grey January afternoon.
RCP curator, Kristin Hussey takes a look at the Royal College of Physician's portraits, from the grandest to the smallest miniatures in the collection.
Visit the RCP museum to see the portrait collection for yourself! We’re open Monday to Friday 9am–5pm and extended evening hours for events. See what’s on and plan your visit.
Find out more
- Find out more about the RCP’s portrait and fine art collection
- Explore the RCP’s portrait collection online at Art UK and search ‘Royal College of Physicians London’.
Natalie Craven, public programmes officer