Portrait of the Chancellor as a vain man?

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What links Oxford Chancellor Chris Patten to Princess Diana, Sir Roy Strong and Elton John? Answer: all have been commemorated for posterity by top artist Bryan Organ.

Oxford paid £16,500 for a portrait of Patten to form the aesthetic centrepiece of the atrium to University Offices in Wellington Square.

Patten, who has previously served as Governor of Hong Kong, is not the only holder of high office to have posed for a Bryan portrait. In fact, the picture puts him in illustrious company – Organ’s previous works have included depictions of Prince Philip and former Prime Minister James Callaghan.

The portrait was unveiled in 2008, the same year in which Patten bemoaned the state of higher education funding, labelling the current cap on tuition fees as “intolerably low.”

Patten is not the only top University official to be honoured with an official portrait hung in the University’s halls. Former Vice-Chancellor John Hood’s portrait, presented to the University on Hood’s departure from Oxford by a charitable foundation, claims the most prominent position in the New Bodleian’s main lobby.

Although Hood supporters have stumped up the funds to permanently honour the former VC, some students have expressed bemusement at what they see as a vanity project.

Nick Cowen, President of Oxford’s Libertarian Society, struck out at the University’s decision to commission the Patten portrait.

He said: “You would expect portraits would cost a great deal, but the price that has been paid for this one does highlight that the University should review its priorities, especially if it really is in the dire financial straits it claims to be in. If it was a private university, things would be very different. As it is, Oxford takes an awful lot of public money and one would assume from that they would strive to keep trifles and extras to a minimum.”

Charles Woodward, an Oxfordshire-based art valuations expert said that although the portrait was painted by a top artist it would be unlikely to be worth a substantial amount on the market.

He said: “Unless Chris Patten himself wanted to buy it, I couldn’t see its market value being any more than around half than what it cost the University to produce.”
Hood’s portrait was donated by the board of donor society Americans for Oxford, and is displayed in the New Bodleian building alongside paintings of Charles II and divisive pre-Civil War archbishop and Oxford Chancellor William Laud.

Hood himself was a controversial figure while at Oxford, introducing radical and wide-ranging reforms of the University’s finance and governance structure during his term. Critics of Hood’s planned reforms argued that the 800-year old tradition of academic self-governance faced a slow destruction in favour of administrative “professionalisation.”

Americans for Oxford have said that the Hood portrait paid for from the personal funds of the Board members, was to “honour a retiring member of the University administration, whom [the Board] felt has provided exceptional service to Oxford.”

A number of members of the Board are closely associated not only with Oxford, but with Hood specifically. Among the members of the board responsible for deciding to donate the portrait is Paul Dodyk. Magdalen alumnus Dodyk, who chairs the organisation, gained recognition and influence within Oxford’s governing body after he was admitted to the Vice-Chancellor’s Circle. The Circle, founded by Hood, is a donor recognition society that offers direct access to the Vice-Chancellor, launched in Hood’s final year as VC.

Also on the board is Francis Finlay, co-founder of the recently dissolved investment management company Clay Finlay. Finlay also gained direct and regular influence over the University’s central administration as a member of Oxford’s Investment Committee, founded during Hood’s term as VC. His connection to the University is farther strengthened by his membership of the Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors and his Honorary Fellowship at Merton.

The portraits represent the latest in a tradition of the University recognising its top officials in perpetuity. As well as producing Patten’s portrait, Organ was also responsible for painting the two previous Chancellors.

Oliver Cromwell famously received not only a portrait to commemorate his time as Chancellor, but also a stained glass window in Mansfield College when it was established in Oxford in 1866.

One former head of house said that there was often an expectation for prominent members of the University to sit for portraits.

He said: “I didn’t want an official portrait, but it eventually got to the point when it was actually considered quite embarrassing for [the college] to be without one. “Eventually, we did have a portrait at the cost of around £10,000, which was thought to be a real bargain.”