People’s portraits at Girton College Cambridge; that ‘foolish cross-legged pose’ vindicated.

The other day, our friend – and our wedding photographer – Alex sent us a photo of this painting. It’s part of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ millennial People’s Portraits exhibition at Girton College, Cambridge. Members of the RP whose sitter books are a roll-call of the Establishment have chosen to immortalise farmers, lifeboatmen and social workers. I think this is a brilliant idea. I particularly like this portrait of Chris McCann, a scaffolder, by June Mendoza who has painted the Queen and Lady Thatcher.


(c) June Mendoza 2002

For one thing, Mendoza is particularly good at sitters with character – she has painted a large series of head studies of Chelsea Pensioners – and for another, Chris McCann looks a bit like Zak.

I was also impressed by the pose. This cross-legged contrapposto has a distinguished pedigree. It’s a big favourite of the Georgian portrait painters. Professor Ellis Waterhouse traces it back to Thomas Hudson’s portrait of the architect Theodore Jacobsen painted in 1743.

(c) The Foundling Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) The Thomas Coram Foundation

Waterhouse loathes it – ‘that foolish cross-legged style that haunted British portraiture for the next fifty years’ – but Mendoza’s portrait shows how natural it can be. It doesn’t come across as a portraitist’s in-joke. It just seems to be how McCann was standing and it gives him a real air of casual authority.

One thought on “People’s portraits at Girton College Cambridge; that ‘foolish cross-legged pose’ vindicated.

  1. The Royal Society of Portrait Painters People’s Portraits exhibition gives a fascinating insight into a cross section of life and is a hidden jewel to discover. I do recommend it and find your comparison most informative. June is one of the Society’s top painters and has captured a fascinating variety of famous figures in various poses over the years.

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