Visualising Identity


Twenty Second Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2007

Lecture 2   :   26 January


Ludmilla Jordanova

King's College London



I shall explore the ways in which portraiture mediates visual identity. Although I have some reservations about the ways in which the term 'identity' is currently used, it is nonetheless extremely useful for thinking about the manner in which portraits have been used for many centuries in at least some societies. They form, I shall argue, a distinctive type of social commentary by a specialised group - artists - who deploy their visual intelligence to interpret what they see and give it tangible form. They thereby occupy a special, privileged role with respect to 'identity'. In the course of producing portraits, artists also draw upon and mobilise skills that most people use in everyday life - forming judgements on the basis of what they observe in others. Largely without thinking, we not only notice stance and gait, pose and demeanour, facial expression, colouring, dress, make up and hair style, but assume they provide clues of some kind about 'identity'. In making a careful study of portraiture, historians can use a genre, its associated forms of display and institutions, to think more critically about 'identity'. Portraits have complex life histories, taking on fresh meanings, testifying to 'identities' in ways their makers could hardly have imagined. In the lecture I hope to explore the complexities of visual identity via portraiture, and to do so using examples that will have resonances for a Cambridge audience.


Ludmilla Jordanova is Professor of Modern History at King's College, London. She worked previously at the Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, York, Essex and Oxford. Decades ago she read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, falling in love with history and philosophy of science in her second and third years. Her doctorate was on the natural philosophy of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. From the late 1970s onwards she has sought to integrate images and objects into her historical work, and in the 1980s took a master's degree in Art History and Theory while teaching History at the University of Essex. She has been a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, London since 2001. Her books include Sexual Visions (1989), Nature Displayed (1999), Defining Features (2000) and History in Practice (2000 and in a second revised edition 2006). She is currently working on a book for CUP about historians' uses of visual and material culture. 

Close menu
Site navigation mobile menu