~ Posted by Lucy Farmer, July 17th 2012
We’ve just posted a piece from our current issue, “Old polymaths never die” by Adrian Wooldridge, about Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper. They were both 20th-century Oxford University academics, but even after their deaths new books appear by them and their legacies live on.
For the illustration, our art director, Graham Black, commissioned Richard Wilkinson, whose work we have used before for a piece about how to break bad news. In his portraits of Berlin and Trevor-Roper, Wilkinson’s skill as a draughtsman, his eye for detail and his sophisticated colour palette combine with an unusual degree of research. The portraits are very good likenesses and they also capture a balance of seriousness and humour. As Wooldridge writes, the two men “shared a passion for poking fun at pedants, bores and second-raters”. Wilkinson’s picture repays close study. He told us about a number of its features, and the intended symbolism:
• The small oval painting behind Trevor-Roper’s left shoulder is a watercolour of flowers painted by Hitler and given to Eva Braun, a topic that Trevor-Roper wrote about.
• The vase of poppies by his left hand signifies Trevor-Roper's extensive writing about war.
• The bust of Rousseau next to Berlin’s right hand references his works on political philosophy, in particular his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”.
• The yellow handkerchief in Berlin’s jacket pocket is the flag of Liberalism.
• Berlin's right hand rests on a red book, “Sibyllinische Blätter des Magus aus Norden” by Johann Georg Hamann, and a blue book, “War and Peace” by Tolstoy. The former refers to Berlin's writings on counter-enlightenment and ontology, the latter to his famous lecture “The Hedgehog and the Fox” and other writings on Russian thinkers.
• A skull rests on the table next to a red fountain pen and a bottle of ink, which alludes to the fact that their writings are having a life after their deaths.
• The chair is empty to imply that their pre-eminence as writers in their fields has not been usurped.