National Portrait Gallery Displays New Portrait of Pioneering Ecologist and Chemist James Lovelock

A new portrait of James Lovelock by prize-winning artist Michael Gaskell has gone on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Lovelock is considered to be one of the main ideological leaders in the history of the development of environmental awareness and his work as a scientist and theorist over several decades is of substantial significance to both specialists and the wider public.

James Lovelock by Michael Gaskell. ©National Portrait Gallery, London

The portrait, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, is painted in egg tempera and shows Lovelock’s head and shoulders as he looks directly at the viewer. Sittings for the portrait took place at Lovelock’s home in Cornwall in May 2010 where Gaskell spent time observing and listening to Lovelock whilst taking photographs and making colour notes. Gaskell noted that Lovelock, although in his nineties, gave the impression of youthful energy and animation. Keen to collaborate with his sitter, Gaskell discussed plans for the portrait in detail with Lovelock and his wife, Sandy, who produced a postcard of a portrait by sixteenth-century Flemish artist Hans Memling as a possible inspiration. Lovelock preferred informality and chose, in the portrait, to wear a sweatshirt bearing the South West Coastal Path logo which is symbolically important to both Lovelock and his wife. Lovelock said he was ‘as proud of having walked it as he was of any of his other achievements’. Gaskell began the painstaking process of painting the portrait in tempera in March 2011, building up thin layers of paint onto to a gesso ground. There is a remarkable level of detail in the portrait and each stitch of the sweatshirt is individually painted. Rather than showing him in a landscape setting, Gaskell painted in Lovelock’s eye the reflected image of his Cornish home.

James Ephraim Lovelock was born 1919 in Letchworth Garden City and graduated as a chemist from Manchester University in 1941. He went on to receive a Ph.D. degree in medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1948 and received the D.Sc. degree in biophysics from London University in 1959. He is the author of more than 200 scientific papers in Medicine, Biology, Instrument and Atmospheric Science and Geophysiology and has applied for more than 40 patents, mostly for detectors for use in chemical analysis. One of these patents was for the electron capture detector (ECD), a device which is used to measure the accumulation of CFCs in the atmosphere, an important landmark in the development of environmental awareness. Lovelock is also the originator of the far-reaching Gaia Hypothesis (now Gaia Theory), which was first put forward in 1972 and states that the planet behaves as a self-regulating organism. His most recent book on the subject, The Vanishing Face of Gaia was published in 2009 by Allen Lane/Penguin. The recipient of numerous awards and prizes, Lovelock was made a CBE in 1990 and a Companion of Honour by Her Majesty the Queen in 2003.

Michael Gaskell born in 1963, studied at St Helen’s College of Art and Design, and Coventry Polytechnic. He has been exhibiting for over twenty years and has held five solo exhibitions in London. The winner of many prizes in national painting competitions, he first exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in the John Player Portrait Award in 1986. He has been on the shortlist of the BP Portrait Award on five occasions, winning second prize in 2003, 2009 and 2010. His work is represented in private collections in the UK, Europe, Asia and the USA.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London says: ‘Michael Gaskell’s exquisite portrait of James Lovelock is a very fitting tribute to an inspiring scientist.’

James Lovelock says, ‘Michael Gaskell first visited in 2010. It did not take long to strike up a friendship as he gathered his sketches and photographs for the portrait and it all seemed the most natural of processes. Sandy and I had both been deeply moved by the portrait of his son in the BP Portrait Award and I was thrilled to be painted by an artist whose style we both so much admire.’

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