Thursday, 11 April 2013


© National Portrait Gallery, London; commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery with the support of J.P. Morgan through the Fund for New Commissions
The first surprise about this work is that it is not a black and white photograph, though from a distance it looks exactly that.  The cropped face and shallow depth arrest you like a cinema still, the electrifying eyes  stare unblinking at you from a warm, perceptive face. The work is, in fact, a painstakingly beautiful painting (acrylic on linen) by Jason Brooks. Bill Morris, Director of Culture, Ceremonies and Education at the London Olympics,  chose this as his favourite portrait in the NPG's Gallery Supporters' Magazine: 'You are drawn to Nurse through the searing intellect and the unshakable determination emanating from these eyes... (he) has been painted with every bristle on display, delivering a ‘what you see is what you get’ feeling.

The second surprise is the sheer size: 171cm x 271 cm. For a cropped head-and-shoulder portrait this is enormous. We have always magnified greatness. We are used to having massive sculptures of kings and things on plinths towering above us. Probably the most visited sculpture in England is Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North (1998), which weighs 200 tonnes of steel and has 500 tonnes of concrete foundations. The artist wanted it to be  'an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east'.

And here we have Sir Paul Maxine Nurse, one of our most distinguished living British scientists,  joint winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, President of the Royal Society and Director and Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute. A former Director of Cancer Research UK, he is a geneticist whose discoveries have revolutionised our understanding of what controls the division and shape of cells. As I understand it we are now nearer to being able to match treatment to the needs of groups or individual cancer patients; better still, to thwart the formation of cancer cells by genetic manipulation. He is also acclaimed for challenging those who publish or broadcast using rhetorical tricks in discussing scientific evidence rather than logic.

Sir Paul has remarked 'Scientific understanding is often beautiful, a profoundly aesthetic experience which gives pleasure not unlike the reading of a great poem'. Or seeing a great work of art?

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