Review: Take a Seat: Seated Portraits at Victoria Gallery & Museum

Self Portrait (1940), Marjorie Brooks

Take a Seat: Seated Portraits
Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool, Special Exhibitions, Showing now

Words, Samantha Browne

Just as I occasionally fancy a mini muffin with my Americano, I am also partial to those special exhibitions consisting of one small room of fine art. Such a morsel can be found on the first floor of the Victoria Gallery and Museum, situated within the University of Liverpool campus, entitled ‘Take a Seat: Seated Portraits’.

Once the lair of professors, when the Victoria Building functioned as the headquarters of the University, the blue walls of Room 104 currently house seven portraits from the gallery’s permanent collection. It is an intimate gathering with every portrait depicting a single subject, if one excuses the inquisitive looking cat on the lap of Professor Kenneth Muir (1907-1997) by Andrew Ratcliffe (born 1948).

The underlying focus of this exhibition is seating as a compositional tool. A painter’s autonomy over the type of seat, its angle and the position of the figure is reflected in two contrasting portraits. One is Self Portrait (1940) by Marjorie Brooks, later Lady Holford (1904-1980). This beautiful woman is turned away from the viewer, her elegant profile looking enigmatically into the distance. The chair she is sitting on is invisible to the naked eye, suggesting its function is perceived as necessary but inconsequential. However, in the portrait of Emeritus Professor Sir Cyril Astley Clarke (1907-2000)1983, painted by Norman Blamey (1914-2000), Sir Cyril looks at the viewer full in the face, arguably an inescapable pose given he is sitting on a high backed wooden chair with high armrests. Indeed, the chair is reminiscent of a throne, which is perhaps a subtle inference of Sir Cyril’s elite social and academic status, a factor at odds with his self-perception as a ‘dilettante’. The portrait’s design was determined by Blamey who insisted he should have a free hand.

Paddington Interior, Harry Diamond (1970) by Lucian Freud (1922-2011) is a privilege to see, given this work is very fragile and not always on display. Harry Diamond (1924-2009) was renowned as a portrait photographer and his centre stage presence seems Freud’s way of turning the tables.

Two side chairs have been kindly provided in the room for visitors to ‘take a seat’ and join this group of esteemed painters and their subjects. I sat a while enjoying the stimulation of their company, and then with my mind fully satisfied I decided it was time for that Americano and mini muffin.

Emeritus Prof Sir Cyril Clarke (1983), Norman Blamey 1
Prof Kenneth Muir (1907-1997), Andrew Ratcliffe