• 25 October 2017 to 1 February 2018
  • Deadline 5:00 pm
  • National Portrait Gallery, London

An international conference sponsored jointly by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London 29-30 November 2018

Biography has always haunted the study of portraiture. Although in recent decades art-historians may have developed a healthy skepticism for the intuitive practice of interpreting portraits with straightforward reference to what is known about the lives of their subjects, the temptation to do so remains strong. Moreover, such is the art-form’s seductive power that even nowadays scholars can still struggle to resist the allure of reading the image of a face as the index of character or mind, and as a corollary, of gauging a portraitist’s mastery in terms of his or her ability to plumb the depths of a sitter’s psyche. These tendencies often appear in their most untrammelled form in analyses of artists’ likenesses of themselves, or of their most intimate acquaintances. Hence the occasion of a major exhibition devoted to Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits of himself and his relations, to be held at the National Portrait Gallery from 22 November 2018 until 23 February 2019, offers a particularly opportune moment to stage a related conference, where critical consideration will be given to the role(s) that the biographical archive might play in portraiture studies going forward.

With the aim of generating a lively and thought-provoking discussion, we would welcome papers that consider portraiture’s fraught relationship with biography without restrictions of time or place, and from the vantage-point of a wide range of disciplines; some of the most interesting recent art-historical work has drawn upon anthropology, microhistory, and material culture studies, for example, though our ambition is to include contributions from across the broadest possible methodological spectrum. Although we would welcome case studies dealing with particular artists or sitters, each proposal should supply clear evidence of a commitment to open up broader questions pertinent to the conference's overarching theme.

In addition to coinciding with Gainsborough’s Family Album, the conference will take place at a key moment for the National Portrait Gallery, as it develops plans for a major refurbishment of its spaces and the first comprehensive re-presentation of its collection. There could hardly be a better opportunity for colleagues from across the field to think about the role of portraiture in evoking a nation’s history, and to help shape the development and interpretation of the new displays.

How to submit

Abstracts (of no more than 500 words) for 20-minute papers should be submitted by email to [email protected] by 5pm on 1st February 2018. We welcome applications from emerging and established scholars. Please also include a short professional biography.

Organizing Committee: David H Solkin; Lucy Peltz; Mark Hallett and Sarah Victoria Turner

Image listing caption: James Boswell
by William Daniell, after George Dance
soft-ground etching, published 10 April 1802 (28 April 1793), National Portrait Gallery

Image banner caption: Samuel Johnson
by Thomas Trotter, published by George Kearsley
etching, published 1782, National Portrait Gallery

In collaboration with: