In a recently published history of the Inn, aptly named A Portrait of Lincoln’s Inn*, we learn that although the Inn’s paintings were removed to a Bencher’s country house for safekeeping in 1940, they were subjected to damp and mildew and reduced to a “deplorable” condition. Fortunately successfully restored, they are now on show at Lincoln’s Inn and present a rich chronological artistic view of Lincoln’s Inn history.

Thomas More miniature

The biggest surprise of this collection is the presence of a watercolour miniature of Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), believed to be a copy of the famous work by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497–1543). Lincoln’s Inn is fortunate in possessing both a copy of this oil painting and the miniature. In the latter, More is painted against a conventional blue background, portrayed in pose and costume in ways which are similar to the iconic, countlessly copied, Holbein painting of 1527, the original of which is held at the Frick, New York. More, shown as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in magistrate’s cap and gold chain, is humanised by the closely painted stubble of his beard and the irridescent glow of the velvet sleeve. But the inversion of the SS gold links on the chain on the miniature at Lincoln’s Inn point to a copyist’s hand rather than an original.


19th and 20th century greats

It is the glossy oil painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) of Thomas Erskine (1750–1823) (see right) which spearheads the sequence of portraits of great 19th and 20th century lawyers. Painted in 1802 when Lawrence was consolidating his reputation as the most successful portrait painter of his generation, this painting shows a similarly successful member of early 19th century society. By this date Erskine had secured notable court victories in favour of Gordon, Hardy, Horne Took, Thelwall and Tom Paine. Lawrence captures a fearless look in the direct gaze. Erskine is shown as a man of individuality (in the age of Romanticism) with his hair cut fairly short and slightly ruffled, evoking an independent mind in line with Erskine’s advocacy of freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary. The half-length is beautifully painted: the principal omission that of the hands, usually a means of conveying Lawrence’s virtuosity as an artist. Lawrence was also masterful at depicting the tactile quality to textiles and in this painting the sculptural coat is contrasted with the swirl of the red sweep of curtain.

Numerous 19th century portraits of famous judges are displayed in the Great Hall and the Drawing Room. Roundell Palmer, 1st Earl of Selborne (1812–95) (see far right) painted by George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) c.1892–3 represents one of the best of them. Watts was commissioned by the Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn for £500 to paint “a head as fine as Mannings”, a reference to Watts’s portrait of Cardinal Manning (at the National Portrait Gallery). However, Watts painted a much larger picture than the head and shoulders which was expected and asked for another £100 which was refused by the Benchers. The painting did end up where intended, when Selborne’s family later presented the work to Lincoln’s Inn in 1896. Selborne is represented as a thinker by the clear focus on his forehead, purposely shown bareheaded without a wig. This focus was intensified by Selborne’s dress; his robe trimmed with pale grey fur obscures his body and presents a timeless dress rather than modern-day clothes. Watts, who by this date was aged 76, had spent much of his career painting portraits for his Gallery of Great Men and he was evidently pleased with the work.

This portrait contrasts with a very early work by Watts in the Great Hall, a fresco painted 1854–60 called A Hemicycle of Lawgivers. Derived from Raphael’s The School of Athens, the lawgivers were modelled on Watts’s friends rather than contemporary members of Lincoln’s Inn and cannot be categorised as portraits. It is, however, a dominating, colourful work.

Long neglected

There are several portraits in this collection by an artist called Reginald Eves (1876–1941): Cozens-Hardy (1838–1920) 1910, Viscount Maugham (1866–1958) 1938, Sir Frederick Pollock (1845–1937) 1926, Russell of Killowen (1867–1946) 1937 and Lord Romer (1866–1944) c.1938. Eves followed a traditional training at the Slade and exhibited from the Royal Academy from 1901, becoming an official war artist in 1940–1. Although encouraged by renowned portrait artist John Singer Sargent, Eves’s portraits show none of this artist’s bravura but they served to commemorate these eminent sitters. Taken in isolation, these portraits by Eves would have been of unstartling significance. But in this collection they are representative of a period of British art which has been under researched. They demonstrate the solidity of draughtsmanship and technical dexterity which characterised this period. For example, Eves’s Sir Frederick Pollock who was Professor at the Council of Legal Education (1884–90) is carefully delineated with every crease of the academic gown revealed as well as the wrinkles around the eyes and the wisps of grey moustache.

In addition, George Fiddes Watt (1873–1960), Sir William Orpen (1878–1931), Walter William Ouless (1848–1933) and Sir Gerald Kelly (1879–1972) portray an array of sitters indicating the fascination of the early 20th century with portraiture. Of this generation it is Sir William Nicholson’s (1872–1949) Viscount Hailsham (1872–1950) (see above right) painted in 1930 currently in the Upper Vestibule which catches the eye. Colourful in legal robes, the confidence of the work catches the sense of permanence of structure, imperial and domestic and the importance of legal ritual (demonstrated by dress) in maintaining and sustaining continuity and tradition.

Sir Edward Fry

Another unusual portrait, with a family link, from this period is Sir Edward Fry (1827–1918) by his son, the famous art critic, Roger Fry (1866–1934) (see right). Edward Fry, Court of Appeal judge and an arbitrator on the International Permanent Court of Arbitration, is commemorated in an astute painting. With details of stiff neck collar and reading glasses, Edward Fry is very much a High Victorian and in a very traditional pose. But the looseness of the paint in his brushed back hair and the folds of his cheek and chin point to a different style from the artists mentioned above. For Roger Fry is recognised as introducing Post-Impressionism to Britain through his ground breaking exhibitions in the pre-World War One period. He championed the importance of form in art, how a picture looks over content. Artists, he believed, should use colour and the arrangement of forms rather than the subject in order to express ideas and feelings and this was captured in his self-portrait painted in 1928 which is held at the Courtauld Gallery. Roger Fry’s picture of his own father represents an attempt to equate these ideas with a family portrait and is therefore of great interest to art historians.


Lady Thatcher (1925– ) was painted by June Mendoza in June 1990 to celebrate her period in office as Prime Minister. Called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1954, she was made an honorary Bencher in 1975. The work is currently located in the Common Room which enables us to compare the painted fireplace in the portrait, in front of which Mrs Thatcher is shown standing, with the real fireplace. Details of the arms on the fireplace, the book held by the sitter (Pitt), her wedding ring and the severe dog-toothed suit and pearl earrings present a controlled, official portrait.

It contrasts with a group portrait, Before the Dinner, comprising Mrs Thatcher, Lord Widgery (1911–1981), Sir Robert Megarry (1910–2006), Lord Denning (1899–1999) and Lord Hailsham (1907–2001), painted in 1979 by William Dring (1900–90). A type of conversation piece in which the sitters and setting (the Benchers’ Drawing Room) are identifiable, the work was commissioned by the Treasurer Lord Renton to celebrate the simultaneous attainment of high office of these sitters and is a comment on the commissioning process and the requirement to produce portraits within a specific timeframe.

More informative and balanced is the realistic The Short Adjournment of 1957 by Norman Hepple (1908–1990). Seven Lords Justice are recognisable by physiognomy. They are carefully placed, again in the Benchers’ Drawing Room. Sympathetic colours combine with interesting poses and gestures of the sitters: their relationship both to each other and their setting give interest and a sense of movement.

Ghostly royal Bencher

Bryan Organ’s (1935– ) HRH The Princess Margaret Countess of Snowdon (1930–2002) was produced to celebrate this royal Bencher’s 40th birthday in 1970. Organ presents his sitters in grid-like sections, often at the centre of a complex set of intersecting lines. Here the ghostly features of Princess Margaret weighted by a crown radiate from a dark background. A barred window is shown symmetrically behind the head and a line splits the canvas in the bottom third. The impression is created—whether intentionally or otherwise—of a prisoner of a life conducted both in the spotlight and in the shadows. Conventions of portraiture relating to format, head and shoulders, half length are set aside as only a very small head with a bencher’s robe shown falling away are depicted. This composition was often used by Organ: there are his celebrated paintings of the Prince of Wales (1948– ) below a blue horizon topped by a Union Jack, and the Princess of Wales (1961–87), just before her marriage in 1981 painted before a door in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. Lincoln’s Inn can be commended for commissioning a work which was very much “of the moment” when it was produced.

Cohesive collection

This collection at Lincoln’s Inn presents a cohesive whole, particularly strong in works of the last century. These later paintings, which portray figures still remembered by modern society, present an extra layer of interest. But the overall impression remains of a continuum of history, a priceless artistic heritage which, as the well-meaning actions undertaken during World War Two indicate, require ceaseless vigilance and attention if they are to be preserved for future generations.

Pat Hardy is an assistant curator at the National Portrait Gallery specialising in 18th and 19th century art. The images are reproduced by kind permission of the Masters of the Bench of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn. * A Portrait of Lincoln’s Inn (Third Millennium Publishing, 2007), Angela Holdsworth (ed)