Friday, 11 November 2011


© National Portrait Gallery, London

In the past there have been conventions about how to signify greatness. You scatter the picture with give-away clues: a smock, palette or brushes in the background, a globe at the explorer’s feet, a tasteful fragment of sculpture by the classicist’s scrolls, a writer’s pen in a shady inkwell.
So what do you do for the geneticist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2007? It would need a great many words for most of us to begin to understand the importance of his achievement. And crude symbolism is not going to work. 

David Cobley’s answer is mesmerising. You first notice the hands. Delicate and powerful, they are centre stage and because of the way they are lit, they create the illusion of solid form in space. You feel you could reach out and touch them. Then there is the miracle of how an artist can paint glass so fragile you fear for its life if is dropped. Back another layer and you have the face of a man who appears to be totally absorbed in what he is doing. He’s not thinking of us, the viewers. He’s not even thinking ‘I’m having my portrait painted’.  But what is it that is so seductive at that moment? The clue is in the background writing, which was the last thing I noticed. There it is,  a page of one of his 1980 notebooks where he was writing about the culture of embryonic stem cells. The artist has chosen to reference a moment  when Sir Martin made his groundbreaking biomedical breakthrough which is now adopted in laboratories the world over for vital research into hundreds of diseases and disorders. 

David Cobley has been drawing and painting people since childhood. He spent months visiting Sir Martin at CardiffUniversity  to work up the sketch in pencil and oil. He also took dozens of  photographs and encouraged Sir Martin to discuss his career in stem cell research in detail. He says this portrait has been designed to capture Sir Martin’s  ‘gentleness and curiosity’ in a ‘dynamic composition’. Peter Davies writing in 2002 says Cobley ‘transforms a straight portrait into a complex still life and interior composite’. John Russell-Taylor, writing in a Messums’ catalogue in  2005 admits, ’Almost without thinking about it, I referred to Cobley’s still-lives as capturing the 'soul' of an object'.

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