Portraits, biographies and public history: the RHS Colin Matthew Lecture, 2021

On 2 November, the Society was delighted to hold its first in-person event of the year: the 2021 Colin Matthew Lecture for the Public Understanding of History, in association with Gresham College.

This year’s lecturer, Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, spoke on ‘Portraits, Biographies and Public History’, and specifically on inter-relationships between these three elements, to an audience at the Museum of London and online.

The lecture is available to watch here via YouTube.

The lecture explored, and challenged, the often marginal and decorative status of biography and portraiture in the disciplines of history and art history. Rather, as  Ludmilla Jordanova argued, both genres offer compelling ways ‘of opening up questions about the past … the shifts on reputations, the changing status of occupations, and much more’.

Portraits and biographies also inspire affective responses. These ensure their contribution to public history — defined here as a depictions of the past in the public domain — long before it became a popular twentieth-first century historical practice.

Central to the lecture was the historian and biographer, Colin Matthew (1941-1999) whose career embraced biography and portraiture through his founding editorship of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, trusteeship of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and his commitment to history, and both of these institutions, as means of public education.

Ludmilla Jordanova delivers the 2021 Colin Matthew Lecture, with a 1993 portrait image of Colin at his desk at the Oxford DNB.


Watch the 2021 Colin Matthew Lecture for the Public Understanding of History



The annual Colin Matthew Lecture was established in 2004 between Gresham College and the Royal Historical Society, where Colin served as Literary Director, 1985-89.

Videos of recent lectures, including those by David Olusoga, Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery and Justin Champion, are available via the Gresham website.