Knowing the Unknown Sitter


What is the value of a portrait when we don’t know who is in it?

Knowing the Unknown Sitter was an on-line anthology of texts relating to ten unidentified portraits, selected from a wealth of material found in national collections across the UK. Through the discussion of these portraits, raised questions about the nature of identity, representation, and the role of the observer in interpreting visual images. The result of an initial collaboration between myself and art historian Lara Perry, the project brought together writers from a range of disciplines as well as portraits – some of which have never been published before – to explore the problem of the unknown sitter, and the value of their portraits, once identity has been lost.

Nicky Bird (Glasgow School of Art, UK)

Tiepin with inset photograph
Unknown photographer, c.1900, photograph in a metal pin
Photograph 18 x 7mm, pin 50 x 1.9 mm
National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, Bradford
No: 4732

© The Science & Society Picture Library
“With no record of its origins, establishing the youth’s identity or that of the wearer seems impossible. Yet here lies a clue: the reading of this face is inextricably linked to some consideration of its wearer. So while actual identities may never be known, the notion of the wearer offers other possibilities for understanding the portrait.”

Read the PDF

Vicki Bruce (School of Psychology, Newcastle University, UK)

A little girl in a Kodak Snapshot Album
Unknown photographer
Four photographs in album, c. 1940s,12.8 x 33 x 1.6cm (open)
National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford
No 95

“We can ‘read’ messages even from the faces of strangers.” Read the PDF

A little girl in a Kodak Snapshot Album

Jeanne Cannizzo (School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, UK)

Portrait of a Naval Cadet
Godwin Williams, ca 1850, Oil on board, 317.5 x 228.6mm
National Maritime Museum, London

“What sort of life might he have had when he did go to sea? If I were ‘in the field’ doing my research, I would be talking with people about their interpretations of their own lives, observing cultural practices and taking part in various activities. From all this I look for the commonalities which might be discerned in the individual life. However, there is no one today who has any direct experience of the life of a mid 19th century naval cadet.” Read the PDF

Portrait of a Naval Cadet

Lucy Hartley (University of Michigan, USA)

Unknown man, formerly known as Johann Zoffany
Unknown artist, 1761, oil on canvas, 527x413mm
National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 399

“Stripped of the usual frameworks of understanding, such as details of the artist and the sitter and the owner or collection,the painting nonetheless accrues meaning and value as I survey its formal qualities and speculate about its significance. How is the painting composed? What is its focal point? And, perhaps most intriguingly, who is this man?” Read the PDF

Unknown Man, formerly known as Johan Zoffany
Note: The NPG currently list this work as Johan Joseph Zoffany by Johan Joseph Zoffany

Alison Matthews-David (Ryerson University, Canada)

Unknown Woman 27
Hill and Adamson,Carbon print, 19.80 x 14.30 cm,
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
PGP HA 2462

“While we can never recover the responses of the original viewers of this photograph, we can imagine that her general bearing and body shape, though appropriate for a model of demure ladyhood, would also make her instantly recognizable to those who knew her well. The slope of her shoulder or the shape of her ear peeping from carefully-curled hair might evoke feelings of affectionate familiarity or respectful admiration.” Read the PDF

Unknown Woman 27

Pamela Gerrish Nunn (Independent Scholar, New Zealand)

Unknown woman formerly known as Charlotte Bronte (Mrs A. B. Nicholls)
Unknown artist, ca 1850, watercolour, 311 x 235mm
National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG 1444

“As an image of an unidentified Victorian woman, this portrait cannot look just as it did when it was supposedly of Charlotte Brontë, and it certainly doesn’t mean the same. Indeed, what does it mean, post-Brontë? What can it mean – without the punctum of Brontë’s identity? Likeness and identity are, after all, the lynchpins of portraiture and the National Portrait Gallery’s essential currency.” Read the PDF

Unknown Woman formerly known as Charlotte Bronte

Lara Perry (University of Brighton, UK)

A Merchant Naval Captain
G. Chinnery (?), ca. 1830, oil on canvas, 285x242mm
National Maritime Museum, London

“What we might make of the portrait as traveller? Portraits are normally thought of as static objects, fixed in oil on canvas and often fixed in a place of display, like a pronouncement handed down from the past. But the portrait which began its life in motion, and which is small enough to be handed around like a photograph (or portrait miniature) belongs to a different scenario: it is an object of exchange or negotiation, rather than one of authority.” Read the PDF

A Merchant Naval Captain

Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton, UK)

Polyphoto of Unknown Woman
Unknown photographer, ca 1950s, Polyfoto, 29.5 x 22.0 cm
National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, Bradford
© The Science & Society Picture Library

“If character revelation is traditionally the essence of good portraiture, we might assume that in a set of forty-eight images there is a greater chance of capturing the essence of the sitter than in a single one. Ironically, however, it seems that the set of multiple images shows the mutability of the photograph as a form more clearly than a single image can.”

Read the PDF

Brian Stokoe (Northumbria University, UK)

Fisher Lassie and Child
D.O. Hill & R. Adamson, 1843-1848, calotype, 187x143mm
National Portrait Gallery, London

“One might speculate also about the extent to which Hill and Adamson were interested in their subjects as ‘types’; as socio-economic representatives of a particular, pre-industrial life, rather than as individuals. In other words, to what degree is this image a portrait of an individual or a specimen of social life? Here again, staring long and hard at our photograph is unlikely to bring us any nearer an answer.” Read the PDF

Fisher Lassie and Child

Alex Veness (Visual Artist, UK)

Unknown woman
Maull & Polyblank, ca. 1855, albumen print, 200x146mmm
National Portrait Gallery, London
P106 (19)

“Maybe this photograph was rejected by P106[19] because of the blurry ‘leg ‘o’ mutton’ puffed sleeve? That could easily explain her anonymity. That’s it, I thought, the photo stayed as an unlisted reject in the studio for years until she was forgotten.” Read the PDF

Unknown woman

Further resources from

The Problem of the Unknown Sitter (original introduction to
Read the PDF
Knowing, and the unknown sitter (original onclusion to Read the PDF
Read an article by Nicky Bird & Lara Perry

Thanks and Credits

National Portrait Gallery (London)
National Maritime Museum (London)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Edinburgh)
National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (Bradford)

Professor Griselda Pollock, University of Leeds, Leeds
Dr Peter Funnell, Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London was made possible by the British Academy’s Small Research Grant Scheme