Edinburgh University commissions portrait photographs of its scholars

January 16, 1998

(Photograph) - Go to any ancient university and you will see, somewhere, portraits of its distinguished former scholars glowering down at you, writes Olga Wojtas. Now Edinburgh University has brought the tradition bang up to date in an initiative which could become a model for other universities.

By commissioning portrait photographs of 26 of its scholars the university has extended its 200-year-old tradition of recording for posterity the faces of its academic staff. Here, Lesley Yellowlees, senior lecturer in chemistry, poses in her lab, in a ballgown, to show that one can be both feminine and a scientist. The impetus for "Portraits of Excellence", by university photographers Tricia Malley and Ross Gillespie, came from vice-principal Colin Bell, who was inspired by Edinburgh's collection of academic portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn. "This exhibition is art rather than documentary," says Bell. "It's meant to say something about the university in the 1990s. A university is an organism which exists over a very long period of time, but it's also a community, and the human face of an institution is absolutely essential." Malley and Gillespie met each of their subjects for an hour's chat, finding out about their interests both inside and outside the university. They then decided on the best means of conveying these, and had a single session to take the photograph. "Hopefully we've moved away from the traditional view of academics," says Gillespie who hopes that other universities will launch similar projects. The Portraits of Excellence exhibition, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until February 1.

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