From Holbein to Hockney: The Art of British Portraiture 1500-2000

Dr David Oldfield

Portraiture has been the dominant genre in the British art world for centuries. The insatiable demand for pictures of people has been encouraged by a succession of outstanding artists who have provided an alluring mixture of the real and the ideal to flatter a wide-range of egos. Our course will begin with Holbein whose stunning portraits of members of King Henry VIII’s court set incredibly high standards for later artists to match.  Van Dyck certainly was equal to the challenge in his creative idealisation of the aristocracy during King Charles I’s reign which in turn provided the model for subsequent generations. The 18th century cult of the personality was captured by such luminaries as Reynolds and Gainsborough while the Pre-Raphaelite portraits of the mid-19th century often provide a more informal antidote to the grandeur of their predecessors. The relaxed yet often starkly realistic 20th century portraits by Freud and Hockney demonstrate that there continues to be an ever vibrant and inventive supply to meet the traditional demand for portraiture.

 After setting the scene in the classroom, we will whenever possible get out to examine the wealth of portraits to be found in Cambridge. Pembroke and King’s Colleges on their own have outstanding portraits lining the walls, not to mention the excellent portraits found in the University Museum and other colleges. A trip to the National Portrait Gallery in London will be another opportunity to look at works by the artists on our course.

This course is aimed at: Students from any discipline with an interest in portraiture.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: None                                                

Transferable skills: Academic writing, visual and critical analysis.

Pre-Arrival Reading

Strongly recommended, but not mandatory.

Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630 (London, Tate, 1995)

D. Shawe-Taylor, The Georgians: Eighteenth Century Portraiture and Society (London, 1990)

The Portrait in British Art (exh. cat.London, NPG, 1991)

S. Howgate et. al., David Hockney Portraits (London, 2006)

C. Saumerez Smith, National Portrait Gallery Highlights (London, NPG, 2010)


  • 1 Final Exam: 40%
  • 1 Final Essay: 45%
  • 1 Mid-term exam: 15%


Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)