Telling stories through portraits: scientists and environmentalists

Learning objectives

  1. Discover inspiring stories of scientists and environmentalists and find out what they achieved.
  1. Explore how artists use different tools to direct our gaze and help tell people’s stories.
  1. Develop visual literacy skills by looking at pose, expression, props and backgrounds.

Chris Packham

Artists make portraits that tell stories about the people in them – often they don’t use any words to do it. Let’s look at some scientists and see what we can find out about them from their portraits.

The person in this portrait is Chris Packham. He’s a scientist who studies wildlife. He works to protect wildlife too, by talking to people about how important wildlife is. You might already know these things from seeing him on TV. But what does his portrait tell us about him?

Look at the portrait of Chris Packham and think or talk about these questions.

  • View larger image
    Chris Packham,    by Richard Ansett,    2014,    NPG x139976,    © Richard Ansett
Chris Packham, by Richard Ansett, 2014
    • He is outside. We can see the sky above him.
    • He is in a place with lots of nature. Trees and plants are all around him.
    • He looks comfortable there. He is letting the plants touch him as if he does not mind them.
    • He is standing up straight and looking right at the camera, it makes him look confident.
    • It is difficult to be sure. He is standing up, so perhaps he has just stopped walking to have his picture taken.
    • He is wearing warm clothes. He looks like he is used to being outdoors on cold days. 
    • His thick clothes will protect him if he has to walk through prickly plants.
    • His jacket is quite smart. Perhaps this is because he wants people to listen to him when he has serious things to say.
    • A pair of binoculars. These are for looking at animals that are far away. 
    • With binoculars he can look at wildlife without getting too close and disturbing them.

Helen Sharman

  • View larger image
    Helen Sharman,    by Ed Marshall,    2016,    NPG x200046,    © Photography by Ed Marshall
Helen Sharman, by Ed Marshall, 2016

Helen Sharman launched into space in 1991. She was Britain’s first astronaut. She is a chemist, so she did experiments inside a space station Orbiting Moving in a curved path around a much larger object, such as a planet. the Earth. It was her only space mission. Now, she works in a university. She also visits schools to talk about science.

This portrait was made many years after that space mission. It tells Helen Sharman’s story.

  1. Why do you think there’s a space suit in the portrait?
  1. Why do you think she is wearing these clothes, not the space suit?
  1. If she came to your school, do you think you would find her easy or difficult to talk to? Why?

Edward Jenner

  • View larger image
    Edward Jenner,    by James Northcote,    1803,    NPG 62,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edward Jenner, by James Northcote, 1803

With some portraits, you can zoom in and find lots of details that help to tell the person’s story.

This is Edward Jenner. He was a medical doctor and scientist in the 1700s. 

Copy his pose:

  • Move your chair next to a table so you can sit the way he is sitting.
  • Look at what his hands are doing. Copy them.
  • Copy the expression on his face.
  1. How does this pose make you feel?
  1. Why do you think the artist showed him in this pose? What is he telling us about Edward?
  1. Why do you think he is touching his head?
  1. What do you think he is holding in his hand?
  • View larger image
    Edward Jenner,    by James Northcote,    1803,    NPG 62,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edward Jenner, by James Northcote, 1803

Now zoom in and look at the details.

    • He is wearing a black suit. 
    • Jenner was a doctor. At the time, doctors were expected to wear plain, dark clothes to look serious. 
    • There is a jar, an animal’s foot and a book with a picture of a cow in it. 
    • Jenner did science experiments to find a way to use a disease from cows, called cowpox, to protect humans from a much more dangerous disease, called smallpox. This is called Vaccination Giving a person a substance that is put into the blood and that protects the body from a disease. .
    • He is holding a Quill pen A pen made from a large feather. and has a pot of ink on the table to dip the pen into. 
    • There is also paper on the table, some of it has writing on it.
    • These are things to help him do his work.
    • What do you think he is writing about?
    • We can see he is indoors, but it’s hard to tell what the room is like. 
    • The artist wants us to focus on Jenner and the objects around him.

Stephen Hawking

This is Stephen Hawking. He was a scientist who is remembered for having brilliant ideas about space, and for helping us understand complicated ideas about our mysterious universe and how it all began.

  • View larger image
    Stephen Hawking,    by Richard Ansett,    2015,    NPG x199386,    © Richard Ansett / BBC
Stephen Hawking, by Richard Ansett, 2015
    • Hawking is at work, dressed in his smart work clothes.
    • The blackboard covered with numbers and mathematical equations is a clue. 
    • He was a theoretical physicist. This means he used maths to try to solve scientific problems. 
    • He also taught science at a university.
    • Hawking used the blackboard to teach his students or work out maths problems. 
    • His computer, glasses and motorised wheelchair helped him to work, talk, see, sit more comfortably and move around.
    • One of the things Hawking studied was space. 
    • The artist wanted Hawking to look like he was floating in space beside a bright, exploding star.

Dorothy Hodgkin

  • View larger image
    Dorothy Hodgkin,    by Maggi Hambling,    1985,    NPG 5797,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dorothy Hodgkin, by Maggi Hambling, 1985

This is Dorothy Hodgkin. She was a scientist who made important discoveries about the groups of Atom The smallest particle of a chemical element that can exist. that chemicals are made of, and how the atoms are joined together to make structures. You can see a red and black model of a chemical structure on her desk.

Look at the portrait for a whole minute.

  1. Hodgkin is working at home. What clues has the artist included to show us that?
  1. How do you think the artist has shown us what Hodgkin was interested in?
  1. What is Hodgkin using to help her do her work?
  1. How do you think the artist has shown us that Hodgkin is very focused and busy?
Science is a wonder. It's like poetry and music.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock, 2012

Look closer

  • View larger image
    Maggie Aderin-Pocock,    by Simon Frederick,    2016,    NPG P2058,    © Simon Frederick / National Portrait Gallery
Maggie Aderin-Pocock, by Simon Frederick, 2016

The portraits we have looked at so far include special objects – things the scientists have made or used in their work, like a space suit or a book. 

Some portrait artists don’t include special objects as clues. You might need to look even harder to find out the scientist’s story.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a British engineer and space scientist. She also visits schools and makes TV shows to teach people about space.

Look at her portrait and make a list of 10 different things you can see. Keep looking until you can finish your list.

  1. Why do you think she is looking up?
  1. Why do you think light is shining on her?
  1. What do you think her face tells us about her feelings?
  1. If she came to your school, do you think you would find her easy or difficult to talk to? Why?
  1. What do you think she is about to do next?

Portraits and stories

Look at all the portraits again. Talk to someone or think to yourself.

  • How are the portraits the same?
  • How are the portraits different?
  • Which portrait do you think tells the most interesting story, and why?
  • Which portrait helped you to get to know the scientist best, and why?
  • How would you tell your favourite scientist’s story?

Next steps

Find out about your favourite scientist’s story. Make a portrait that incudes clues about their story.