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Dr Robert Anderson

Dr Robert Anderson
oil on canvas
79 x 79 cm
2002
British Museum

It's difficult to imagine a more daunting commission than that of painting the Director of the British Museum. The resulting portrait would hang in the Museum's boardroom under the scrutiny of generations of its trustees. Traditionally the task fell to me as the artist member of the board. Luckily Dr Robert Anderson was a genial and eminently cooperative sitter who was willing to make the portrait a priority in his schedule.

The format and the adoption of a profile view were both relatively novel for me and came out of a coincidence that related to the museum itself. A recent display of coins and medals was of particular interest in that I was designing at the time the Jubilee five pound piece for the Royal Mint. Robert Anderson's strong Enlightenment profile seemed to be made for such emblematic treatment and the inscription round the border of his title reinforces the analogy to the portrait bronzes of the Renaissance.

Circular images always leave corners and I decided to make a mosaic hinting at another visual language present in the Museum (I had myself been working on mosaics for a renewal project in Peckham).

We had long discussions as to what might appear in the background and settled on a Desert Island choice of object from the collections. Robert Anderson's scientific leanings and his artistic taste came together in the medieval Islamic astrolabe which, echoing the circle of the picture, appears at the extreme left of the image.

It is nice to sneak in a big reference into a small detail and the pattern on Robert Anderson's tie is that of the glass roof of the Great Court, the major achievement of this directorship.

Artist's statement, 2003

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