A new portrait of the Master of Caius so detailed it was painted partly with a magnifying glass has been hung in the College Hall, continuing a 500-year tradition of portraiture within Oxbridge Colleges.
The painting of outgoing Master Professor Sir Alan Fersht is the work of Michael Gaskell, whose ultra-precise works combine the painstaking techniques of Old Masters with a dislocatingly contemporary, photographic quality. Dubbed “a 21st Century Old Master” by Caius Art Historian Dr James Fox, Michael is one of Britain’s most celebrated modern painters and has been shortlisted no fewer than seven times for the prestigious BP Portrait Award.
Sir Alan, who sat for the painting in accordance with tradition as he prepares to end his term as Master next Autumn, chose the artist himself after visiting the National Portrait Gallery. He was inspired there by Michael’s portrait of the climate scientist Sir James Lovelock, finding the technique “exquisite” and feeling he knew the sitter from the painting.
With the first sitting in May 2015, the portrait of Sir Alan took over two years to complete, a timescale typical of the artist’s working method. The process began with Michael taking thousands of photographs in the Master’s Lodge at Caius, testing different rooms and lighting conditions before settling for the location on the first floor formal sitting room, flooded via floor-to-ceiling windows on one side with light from the Master’s Garden.
A day-long second sitting in January 2016 gave artist and subject a chance to talk — a critical part of the process for Michael that also ensured Sir Alan, positioned in his favourite Windsor chair, never grew bored. He says: “It was not at all painful being a sitter because we spent the whole time in conversation getting to know each other while Michael was teasing information out of me and sizing me up psychologically and graphically.”
For Michael, the painting itself happens in his Leicester studio, away from the sitter. The detailed photographs, measurements and notes he makes at the sitting all feed in to “an imaginative reconstruction of the whole experience of the sittings”.
While historically many portraits of College Masters and others feature symbolic “props” designed visually to establish the status and interests of the subject, Sir Alan’s painting focuses on the sitter, his chair, and the room — all illuminated from the portrait’s left side. The door behind him was left slightly ajar, symbolising both the transience of the Master’s role, and — for Michael — the fact that scientific research, once published, is public and open to all.
As a painter, Michael’s aim is, he says, “to get out of the way of the subject. I want you to look at Alan. I don’t want the first thing you think about to be the paint or me as a painter.” To achieve this, he paints with tiny brushes, sometimes even a magnifier fitted over his eyes like a visor, and very close observation, hoping the viewer will consider technique only as a secondary thought. "I like my paintings to engage you from across a room and then invite you in to look with your nose almost against the surface."
The long timescale over which his paintings develop is also important: the sitter’s hands were painted from sittings over a year apart so “one hand is a year older than another”. The slight difference helps to disrupt the composition, Michael says, giving a sense of the sitter’s active nature. The depiction of Sir Alan’s blue shirt, too, is divided in half, with the left side deliberately more naturalistic and the right smoothed out almost at the end of the painting process to further lessen the formality of the portrait.
Light is also critical in the painting, with the softer light on the right representing the internal life of the College and the bluer light coming from the outside illuminating the Master’s private life and personal interests out in the world. The play of light, prompting critics to note the influence of Vermeer and Dutch seventeenth century paintings on Michael’s work, produces details such as the reflection of Sir Alan’s shirt in the wood of the chair and the reflection in his eyes. A tiny point of the light on the doorframe from a lightbulb outside the room offers a subtle nod to a comment made by James Lovelock during his sitting, in which he said ideas arrive fully formed, like a lightbulb being switched on.
Seeing his portrait for the first time last August, the Master was thrilled to find the lighting reminded him of his youthful love of the Dutch artist Rembrandt, which he had never discussed with Michael. “I was speechless as it was just what I had hoped for.”
Dr Fox agrees. “Michael is in my view a 21st Century Old Master. He works painstakingly slowly and uses traditional techniques — some of which went out of fashion 500 years ago. “His paintings are so precise and vivid that at first sight, they look like photographs. But when you look at them more closely you begin to realise that they are rich, nuanced and full of symbolism.”
The portrait of Sir Alan, he adds, is no exception. “The picture is so filled with wonders that one never tires to look at it.”
- We asked Sir Alan and Michael to write down their thoughts on creating this portrait. Their complementary accounts of the experience are below, together with comments from Dr James Fox, Caius History of Art Fellow and Keeper of the College Portraits.
The sitter: Professor Sir Alan Fersht
I realised looking back that my subconscious directed my choice of portrait painter from my preferences when I was young. My favourite artist was Rembrandt because I admired his exquisite technique, his use of chiaroscuro and his ability to capture the personality of the subject. My first steps towards selecting an artist were to go to the Annual Exhibition of Portrait Painters Society in the Mall. The only artist I liked in the exhibition was David Cobley who had painted my predecessor Sir Christopher Hum. My wife Marilyn suggested that I went to the National Portrait Gallery on a trip to London, and there in the room dedicated to scientists I saw a small portrait of James Lovelock of the Gaia Hypothesis. The technique was exquisite and I felt that I knew James Lovelock from the painting. It had been commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery from Michael Gaskell, who had been very successful in portrait competitions. Michael agreed to paint me, much to my delight. I never mentioned to him my love of Rembrandt because it was still buried in my subconscious.
Michael stayed with us in the Lodge in May 2015 and took thousands of photographs in different rooms and under different lighting conditions until the following morning when he found what he considered to be the best pose in the best light. It was in the formal sitting room, built in 1795, on the first floor overlooking the Master’s Garden. Michael and I did not see each other again until he came back to check some details of the pose in January, which again took a full day. It was not at all painful being a sitter because we spent the whole time in conversation getting to know each other while Michael was teasing information out of me and sizing me up psychologically and graphically.
I first saw the painting in August, unveiled by Michael in the sitting room. I was speechless as it was just what I had hoped for. When I recovered, my first words were to describe the exquisite portrayal of my favourite 18th century Windsor chair as the colour and patination had been so faithfully recorded. I now realise that the natural lighting in the room had replicated classical “Rembrandt lighting” with the right side of my face well lit and the darkened left with highlights under my eye. The technique and attention to detail is astounding. Using a magnifying glass, I can see the weave of the material of my shirt. The grey hairs are painted individually. Michael is not a jobbing portrait painter but an artist who paints portraits.
The artist: Michael Gaskell
I met Alan for the first time when I came to Cambridge in June 2015. I approach each commission with an open mind. The only parameters set for the portrait were size — the picture has to fit with the scale of the other paintings here, and the degree of formality — Alan was keen for the painting to be quite informal.
Alan and Marilyn gave me a tour of the college and we looked for somewhere to do the sittings. I like to work in natural light, and we found the best spot was in the large sitting room, which has floor to ceiling windows. You can see the light from them reflected in Alan‘s eyes in the painting.
The painting itself is done in my studio away from the sitter. I think of my work as a sort of imaginative reconstruction of the whole experience of the sittings. So I absorb as much as I can when I’m here. I take photographs and do measurements, I take note of colours and light and the feel of the space, but most of all it’s about the experience. Ideally the sittings should be relaxed, a sort of conversation — I offer a bit of direction, but I like the pose to evolve.
Alan sat mainly in one place, but it didn’t feel right, so towards the end of the second day of sittings we moved position. The lighting was then more directional and crucially the door, which was slightly ajar, was behind him. This was to become important both compositionally and symbolically as I worked on the painting, though I didn’t know that at the time.
Back in my studio I take all this information and try to construct out of it a composition, which is simple and seems straightforward, something that looks and feels right. As a painter I try to get out of the way of the subject. I want you to look at Alan. I don’t want the first thing you think about to be the paint or me as a painter. One of the ways I do this is by painting with tiny brushes, sometimes a magnifier and very close observation. I try to treat all area of the painting in the same way, with the same degree of focus. I hope at some point you think how was it done but I want that to be a secondary thought.
I like to work on the paintings over a long period. I like the idea of spending time reflecting on and examining what is in effect a short intense period of observation, trying to understand what I’m looking at, finding meaning in it and thinking about the person I’m painting. I try to include something of this long timescale in my paintings. For instance in this picture each hand is painted from sittings that were a year apart: one hand is a year older than the other.
The slight difference in the hands was something I used as part of the process of disrupting the balance of the composition. Alan struck me as a man who is always active and on the move, not a man who sits down much, and I very much wanted a sense of this: of him about to get up. I twisted the pose and treated the chair as a Cubist might. Each part of it is taken from a different time during the sittings and has a slightly different perspective. It’s unified by the colour and patina. I’d be interested to see what it look like if you could get the painted Alan to get up and we could see the whole thing.
I used the quality of light to say something about Alan‘s public and private faces, so everything on the right of the picture is influenced by the reflected colour from inside the college, the yellow interior which I think of as representing Alan’s position as Master and life in the college and everything on the left is influenced by the blue light of the outside, Alan’s personal interests and private life, if you like.
Though Alan wasn’t wearing a tie or jacket I began to feel that the shirt, which had a new minted feel to it, was beginning to feel stiff and formal. It was something that didn’t feel right and something I changed very late on in the painting process just a few weeks before the portrait was finished. I decided to use the central seam to divide the shirt in half. I left the stiff more formal creases on the right and treated the left hand side as I would a sky. I removed all the creases and folds and made it much flatter, less naturalistic and enjoyed the blueness of it.
Which brings me back to the significance the door behind Alan started to have in my thinking about the painting. Firstly, the idea of entering and leaving his role as Master, passing on his role here to someone else, but also openness to the passing on of knowledge and intellectual ideas. I like the idea, which for me the open door came to symbolise, that when scientific papers are published the research is out there and open for anyone to access and use.
Alan became aware of my work when he saw the painting I’d done of James Lovelock in the National Portrait Gallery and I put a little nod to that connection in the portrait. There is a tiny point of light on the door frame behind Alan which is the light from a light bulb outside the room and it’s a reference to something James Lovelock said to me in one of our sittings for his portrait, that sometimes ideas come suddenly and fully formed and it really is like a light bulb being switched on.
The expert: Dr James Fox
Oxbridge colleges have been commissioning portraits of their departing Masters since the sixteenth century. We don’t know exactly when the tradition started, although Gonville & Caius College was among the first colleges to embrace it. Indeed, our 1563 portrait of John Caius — of which we now possess at least six versions — is one of the earliest ‘Magisterial’ portraits to be made in either Cambridge or Oxford.
If Caius’s portrait was provoked above all by its sitter’s personal vanity, the practice soon became customary. There have been 27 Masters since John Caius, and all of them have been immortalised by portraits. These pictures are, if truth be told, a mixed bag. We have some superb efforts by eminent artists like Joshua Reynolds and William Orpen, but we also have some rather less-superb efforts by anonymous artists who are (perhaps rightly) forgotten.
When I heard that Alan Fersht had chosen Michael Gaskell to paint him, I was delighted. Michael is one of the most celebrated British painters working today. He’s been shortlisted for the prestigious BP Portrait Award on no less than seven occasions, and has been runner-up three times. If this sounds unlucky, it isn’t. The competition attracts thousands of submissions every year from all over the world and many fine artists never make it past the long-listing process.
Michael is in my view a twenty-first century Old Master. He works painstakingly slowly and uses traditional techniques — some of which went out of fashion five hundred years ago. His paintings are so precise and vivid that at first sight, they look like photographs. But when you look at them more closely you begin to realise that they are rich, nuanced and full of symbolism.
Michael’s portrait of Alan Fersht is no exception. The picture is so filled with wonders that one never tires to look at it. Most viewers will focus on the face — with its individually painted hairs and that miniature reflection in the eyes — but my favourite parts of the picture are the ravishing blue reflections on Alan's polished Windsor chair. It is, in all senses of the word, Master-ful.
- To view other paintings at Caius, please visit the website of ArtUK, an online archive of oil paintings from the UK’s public art collections.
- For more information, please contact Caius Head of Communications Lucy Ward.