Cambridge colleges head porters in portrait show

Helen Stephens, Head Porter, Selwyn College; Grahame Appleby, Head Porter, Jesus College Image copyright Louise Riley-Smith
Image caption Many of the head porters, including Selwyn's Helen Stephens (left) and Jesus' Grahame Appleby (right) chose to be painted in their formal clothes

The "unsung heroes" of Cambridge University are the stars of what is the first portrait exhibition of college head porters.

Artist Louise Riley-Smith, who has previously painted senior academics, diplomats and landowners, spent two years painting the 25 men and women.

She said: "Their work is vital... yet they rarely seek the limelight."

Head porters lead a team that staffs college entrances, greets guests, sorts post and provides 24-hour security.

Image copyright Louise Riley-Smith
Image caption The women-only Lucy Cavendish College calls Neil Curtis (left) and John Morley (right) senior porters rather than head porters

Mrs Riley-Smith said: "They are the unsung heroes of the Cambridge colleges.

"They are responsible for health and safety, for all the students with their problems they are rather fatherly figures - and so much post comes in too, for the fellows and the students."

Mrs Riley-Smith believes the only other portrait of a head porter was one at Magdalene College "painted many years ago".

The project was proposed by her husband Jonathan, a retired history professor and Emmanuel College fellow, who described head porters as the college kingpins.

Image copyright Louise Riley-Smith
Image caption Former prison officer Cheryl Bowran (left) was the first female head porter at Newnham College, while Michael Wignall (right) is at Wolfson

St John's College head porter Steve Poppitt said: "I thought it was a bit of fun - and quite an honour, because unless you pay to commission a portrait, you're not often going to be invited to have your portrait painted."

The retired police inspector is pleased with the result and said: "She's captured that look which my wife says I have."

Image copyright Louise Riley-Smith
Image caption St John's head porter Steve Poppitt (centre) says the porters' lodge is the first port of call for students when they injure themselves - or get locked out of their rooms. Tony Hall (left) is at Girton while Peter Windmill (right) is at Trinity College

Until the 19th Century, portraiture was the preserve of the powerful, while "workers remain anonymous and unpainted", according to Chris Owen, head of the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University.

"Photography is now the main way of preserving people's features for posterity, while portraiture is retained for people who are seen as particularly important and in very traditional contexts.

"The interesting thing about these portraits is they are of porters who do an ordinary job in colleges where the masters have their portraits painted."

Image copyright Louise Riley-Smith
Image caption Jane Phelps was formerly the head porter of Clare College. Head porters also lead students from their colleges in procession through Cambridge to the Senate House on graduation day

Cambridge University has 31 colleges, but not all have head porters.

All but three of the head porters approached by Mrs Riley-Smith agreed to take part.

The exhibition opens in Cambridge on 18 June.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites