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Historians of 'Past and Present'

2 of 3 portraits of Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm

Historians of 'Past and Present', by Stephen Frederick Godfrey Farthing, 1999 - NPG 6518 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Historians of 'Past and Present'

by Stephen Frederick Godfrey Farthing
oil on canvas, 1999
68 1/4 in. x 81 3/8 in. (1734 mm x 2066 mm)
Commissioned, 1999
Primary Collection
NPG 6518


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The founding of the historical journal Past and Present evolved from the friendship of a group of young Marxist historians in the late 1940s, its first edition appearing under the aegis of John Morris (d.1977) in 1952. The aim was broadly to give a platform to both Marxist and non-Marxist historians to air contemporary historical research and discussion.

The seven historians depicted have all had editorial roles in organising the journal, but were not gathered in one place as a group to be painted. The artist Stephen Farthing, Ruskin Master at the Ruskin School in Oxford, sent questionnaires to all the sitters, asking how they perceived themselves in relation to others in the group and visited each of them for sittings during 1999. He describes how he dealt with the task of producing a work that reflected both the era and the intellectual energies of the group:

To take the problem head on I set the picture in the latter days of modernism, 1950-60, and by doing so brought some of its cold dynamic in through the paint handling and style of the picture. The book shelves are not a backdrop but painted to be of equal importance to the sitters, books are after all both the product and focus of their lives. The spines are torn off to reveal the structure of the book and so as not to confuse the bigger picture with the anecdotal. They stand on a carpet woven to reflect the current issue of their journal and in doing so, like the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth, declare their ownership.

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