Joseph Lister, Baron Lister

Joseph Lister, Baron Lister, by Margaret May Giles (Mrs Jenkin), 1898 -NPG 1897 - Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Joseph Lister, Baron Lister

by Margaret May Giles (Mrs Jenkin)
Wax medallion, mounted on slate, 1898
4 3/8 in. (111 mm overall
NPG 1897

Inscriptionback to top

Embossed around the head: ‘– LORD – LISTER – PRS – 1898 –’;
signature incised beneath left shoulder: ‘M.M. Giles’.

This portraitback to top

As a student of Edward (Edouard) Lantéri at the Royal College of Art, Margaret May Giles was part of a generation much influenced by French techniques of modelling with clay. Lantéri’s students, many of them women, emerged as successful exhibitors in the 1890s. Giles, for instance, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1894 with three (unidentified) portrait medallions, and thereafter sent reliefs, statuettes, busts, medals and medallions to the summer exhibitions almost without interruption until 1912. [1] As Marion Harry Spielmann observed in 1901, ‘there are at the present moment a number of lady-sculptors who, now that the full means of study are at last allowed them, are making their mark in England’. [2]

Thus at the time of her marriage to Bernard Maxwell Jenkin (1867–1951), Giles was an established, prize-winning sculptor, and she continued to work under her maiden name. Bernard Jenkin’s father was (Henry Charles) Fleeming Jenkin, the great professor of electrical engineering at Edinburgh. The marriage was in 1898, which is also the date on NPG 1897. Reading the list of medallions Giles made in the 1890s it is clear that a number are of scientific personalities, associates of the so-called ‘North British’ network, of which Fleeming Jenkin and William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin; see NPG 1896) were leading lights. [3] Giles designed medallions of Lister and Kelvin as a facing pair, their subjects’ Royal Society credentials emphasized in the relief lettering. [4]

While Joseph Lister is not usually associated with this group, he knew many of them in Scotland, and like them was a scientific groundbreaker. Thus in the 1860s he was professor of surgery at Glasgow, where Thomson, a life-long friend, was professor of physics; and, during his professorship in Edinburgh in the 1870s, Lister was a colleague of Fleeming Jenkin’s. [5] It may be that Giles’s project to make a series of medallion portraits of these eminent – and by the 1890s venerable – scientists was in some way linked to her connexion with the Jenkin family.

Giles offered three portrait medallions to the National Portrait Gallery in April 1921. ‘May I submit, for the acceptance of the governors, medallions in plaster (4in diam) of Lord Kelvin, Lord Lister & [James] Clerk Maxwell? The first two were modelled from life & can be judged by many contemporaries, the last was modelled from a photograph, & I enclose a photograph from the wax.’ [6] The portraits of Lister and Kelvin were accepted but that of Maxwell, not taken from life, was declined. Giles brought in the original medallions a few weeks later, and revealed an interesting use of materials: the wax busts had been modelled on slate supports, the busts in high relief within circular raised borders, the yellowish wax ‘perforated’ to reveal areas of grey slate. She was apologetic: ‘Twenty years without care or cover have not improved them, & I am trying to clean them, before handing them in.’ [7]

The waxes were accepted by the Trustees in April 1921, and the Ten-Year Rule was waived to allow in the portrait of Lister. [8] Giles stated that the medallions had been ‘modelled & signed’ before her marriage; and she followed with interest decisions about cutting the slate supports and the framing. [9] The following year the Gallery contacted her about the Kelvin wax medallion, which had cracked, although that of Lister was proving ‘more robust’. [10] By 1980 the Lister wax too was reported in a ‘miserable’ condition, [11] while a 1997 conservation report described cracks across the face, and an age-related brittleness of the medium. [12]

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Giles exhibited one last statuette at the RA in 1945.
2) Spielmann 1901, p.159. For details of Giles’s fame and awards in the 1890s, see Beattie 1983, pp.22, 195–6, 198; see also the photograph by Hills and Saunders, Oxford, ‘Miss Margaret Giles’, publ. The Year’s Art 1896. For further details on Giles, see ‘Margaret May Giles RWA, FRIBA’, Mapping Sculpture website.
3) The North British network, active c.1845–c.1890, was ‘an informal group of physicists and engineers, strongly connected with Scotland, that constructed the science of energy in the third quarter of the nineteenth century’ (Smith 2015). See Giles’s medallion of the physicist and electrical engineer W.E. Ayrton, a colleague of Jenkin’s, and the chemist W.A. Tilden, both exh. RA 1897.
4) Lister had been nominated president of the Royal Society in 1895.
5) Godlee 1917, p.89; Cookson & Hempstead 2000, p.191.
6) Letter from M.M. Jenkin to NPG, 12 Apr. 1921, NPG RP 1896. James Clerk Maxwell, physicist, had been a university colleague of Lister’s at Glasgow. For a photograph of the now untraced wax medallion see NPG Archive, SB Maxwell.
7) Letter from M.M. Jenkin to J.D. Milner, 27 Apr. 1921, NPG RP 1896.
8) The Gallery’s founding acquisition policy ruled: ‘No portrait of any person still living, or deceased less than 10 years, shall be admitted by purchase, donation, or bequest, except only in the case of the reigning Sovereign, and of his or her Consort.’
9) Letter from M.M. Jenkin to J.D. Milner, 30 May 1921, NPG RP 1896.
10) Letter from M.M. Jenkin to NPG, 1 May 1922, NPG RP 1896.
11) Letter from R. Gibson to P. Jenkin, 1 Sept. 1980, NPG RP 1897.
12) Sculpture conservation report, 11 Aug. 1997, NPG RP 1897.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, profile to left.

Provenanceback to top

Given by the artist, 1921.

Reproductionsback to top

First day cover, image of Lister medallion on envelope postmarked 1 Sept. 1965; see British First Day Covers website.

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