Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Earl Kitchener of Khartoum by von Herkomer and Goodall, c1890, NPG

A portrait of Earl Kitchener (Horatio Herbert 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum) was discussed on the 29th of December 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  The gallery holds these events on the last Thursday of the month for the visually impaired. (http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/event-root/december-2011/portrait-of-horatio-herbert-kitchener-1st-earl-kitchener-of-khartoum.php)

I was a bit early and so asked for Room 23 as I entered the building on the Minus 1 level.  There are various entry points to the National Portrait Gallery and I still get a little confused when entering the building.  I entered through the shop and approached one of the guards near the revolving doors.  I was taken to the painting on level 1 by a side lift (elevator). This painting is not the memorable one frequently used in posters of the type “Your Country Needs You” so often parodied in theatre and TV programmes: 

I had the chance to roam around the gallery room of Victorian military and explorer “types” and recognised a painting of Queen Victoria in a huge triangular dress receiving a potentate of some sort. Another “type” caught my eye and another attendant read out the caption and told me that the group which had gathered on the ticket and information desks on Level 0 was on its way.

The group of about 10 gathered and sat around Lord Kitchener while Fran made some comments.  Images of Miss Brodie lecturing her class should be discounted; the group have a hinterland of their own and are not a group of impressionable schoolchildren.  The programme for next year was handed out for the regulars though the website may be more interesting for some background to the portraits being discussed.

An interesting approach of the NPG is to have the actual painting in front while descriptions are made.  Measurements of paintings, whether in metric or imperial, can be tricky if no means of making sense or comparisons of dimensions are available.  Fran neatly solved this problem by standing in front of the painting and describing some of the features with reference to herself.

The painting shows Kitchener in military dress and standing against an horizon of Middle Eastern landscape.  The portrait was done by Sir Hubert von Herkomer     while the drawing of the town was done by Frederick Goodall. 

Kitchener had blue eyes and some eye defects and this was described to us.  Kitchener had said that one of his eyes was slower than the other thus accounting for his being a “bad shot” and not proficient at sport when he was at school and in training.  Remarks were made about his moustache and the fashions of beards and moustaches were discussed though I did not offer myself as a tactile object!  I described the life mask of Henry Wellcome at the Wellcome Collection and as if on cue Fran produced a bust of Sir Edward Elgar for us to touch.  The bust had been brought up just in case!  In touching the bust of Welcome, I first encountered his moustache whereas in the case of Elgar I hit him on the nose.  The life mask is not the same as a bust sculpted by an artist.  This illustrates the different information obtained on either a “touch tour” or “handling sessions”

There were probably three people attending who had an interest in military history and had family connections with WW1 (First World War).  Some comments regarding Kitchener’s “pips” were made, as well as his sword and belt.  His right hand is shown holding gloves and a pith helmet. The left hand holds a red book and I asked a question about the relative difficulty of drawing or painting a gloved rather than an ungloved hand.  (I had been to a gallery tour at the National Gallery concerning Titian’s drawing skills being criticised by Michaelangelo!)

There was a discussion about uniforms (the dress is beige coloured against a sandy background), with collar styles and insignia mentioned as cue points for further debate.  We were informed by one of the participants that Kitchener was wearing a collar of the Prussian Army style and that this was the model adopted by the US Marines.  (I mentioned this to an American who exclaimed “Well I never!”)  Some had a relative who had been in a French cavalry regiment during WW1 and comparisons with family photographs were made.  Kitchener was painted in 1890 in a Victorian tradition which was common practice at the dawn of photography.

Topics such as the British Empire, Sudan, religion, freemasonry and mapping were discussed.  Kitchener was said to be High Church Anglican and from Ireland so what was the red book he was holding?  Tractarianism and the Oxford Movement were floated in discussion. 

Kitchener had been involved with mapping Lebanon and the area around Gaza.  British cartographers left their mark in Iraq and Saudi Arabia (Shakespeare) and in India (Everest) as well as the Ordnance Survey itself.  I have always enjoyed maps and have been encouraging the easier access to tactile maps. For Christmas I was given a copy of Map of a Nation by Rachael Hewitt who recently broadcast in part of the Freethinking essays on BBC Radio3.  This is a treasure trove and I found myself updating my Arniston post and that was only getting as far as A on the A2Z of the index. 

The subject of Sudan had been brought to the Radio4 Today programme which had been edited by guest editor Mo Ibrahim (from Nubia in Sudan/Egypt) So, the recent unravelling of Sudan and other border disputes were also discussed.  References to Khartoum and Omdurman were made and as no one mentioned Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, I uncharacteristically kept quiet.


This was my second portrait description at the NPG and was again a painting with some subjects worth exploring. At the beginning of the talk, Fran said that instant feedback and interjections from the group were to be encouraged. In what was a bleak day weather wise in London, this visit brightened the period between Christmas and New Year.

In 2012 topics include Elizabeth Stuart (Winter Queen) and her father King James I/VI.  (http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/event-root/january-2012/picture-description-portrait-of-elizabeth-queen-of-bohemia-26jan12.php) There is no need to reserve a place in the group and it was pleasing to meet two of the regulars at other events.  If, like me, you tend to be early, you can always ask to be taken to the painting to judge for yourself the real thing. It is always possible to ask “Who is that”

Geometry of Portrait:

We were given an A3 reproduction of the portrait and at home I keep them in a clear plastic folder with a slight (green?) tinge.  This allows some extra contrast when viewed with a low voltage lamp.  I can make out that Kitchener takes up about 80% of the length and about 80% of the width when centred. On top, his head is square rather than being oval and his arms form triangles, with the elbows forming the apex, though asymmetric.  He is cut off mid thigh and a triangle is formed with his tunic and legs. An inverted triangle forms the torso and a smaller triangle appears below the belt line. In the background I can make out a mosque with minaret. Seen this way, everything is monochromatic though the fine drawing and lines are fairly visible in my peripheral vision.  The portrait is fixed in my mind and though I can’t see his eyes, I know where they are, and that they are blue.

More information on the portrait can be found on: