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Early portraits: highlights

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Sir John Davis by an unknown artist, about 1596

Reading Museum has an impressive collection of portraits from the Tudor period to contemporary works in its permanent collection. Amongst the early portraits are images of characters with connections to Reading. These include Reading-born merchants such as Thomas White or John Kendrick, as well as local landowners and politicians such as Christopher Griffith or John Berkeley Monck. Some were painted for public display, others for the family homes of the sitters, while quite a few were commissioned by the town to honour its notable public figures.

All portraits are concerned with identity, with how the subject is presented. Even today when we make informal portraits on our smartphones and digital cameras we construct the images to say something about their subject. It is often rewarding to ask why a portrait has been made. Who decided to make it? Why was the sitter chosen? Who was expected to view it? How much did the commissioner, the artist and the sitter collaborate to produce the final image and what did they try to convey about the sitter? It is also worth asking what their choice of pose, clothes, and objects reveal about the sitter’s daily life and times. These ideas are explored in this group of early portraits.

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