Portraits capture their human subjects in art form, usually through painting, drawing or sculpture. They can be accurate reflections, caricature, satire or heavily idealistic but usually show the face and expression of the sitter so that elements of their character can be conveyed.
Remarkable portraits can be seen throughout the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) headquarters. Our collection has grown to over 300 oil paintings and sculptures, presenting a fascinating record of the most eminent figures in the history of British medicine. Many of Britain’s leading portrait artists are represented, including the studio of Godfrey Kneller, Peter Lely, Joshua Reynolds, Johan Zoffany and Thomas Lawrence.
In 1596 the RCP announced that any member or ‘noble person’ could display his portrait or coat of arms on payment of £10. Almost all of these portraits were lost when the College was destroyed during the 1666 Great Fire of London. This portrait of William Harvey survived the fire, and has hung in the library of all subsequent RCP buildings.
From the 18th century, a deliberate policy of building up the collections began and Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) became the first living president to donate his own portrait. Since the Second World War, a portrait of every outgoing president has been commissioned after their term of office.
The portraits are varied in their tone and presentation. Early portraits tended to be formal, portraying the sitter as a serious gentleman or scholar with a surprising lack of medical references. More recent ones show the personality of the sitter more explicitly. My favourite portraits include this one of Professor George Alberti with his purple rucksack, and of Dame Carol Black, the RCP’s second female president, who chose not to wear the traditional presidential finery associated with earlier portraits but nevertheless remains authoritative while still very human.
The most recent addition to the collection is this portrait of Sir Richard Thompson (president 2010–4) by Diarmuid Kelley. The portrait has been left deliberately unfinished, in the usual style of Kelley’s works. It makes a delightful contrast to some of the more traditional portraits in the building and has captured the personality of the sitter in a different way to early portraits. This portrait can be viewed on the second floor of the main RCP building.