This portrait of George Edwards, one of the college butlers, is thought to have been commissioned by the college in 1975. It is considered to be a response to another portrait of College Butler Edward Wise, “Butler with ox-eye cup”, which was painted in the 1680s by an unknown artist. This is shown by the mirrored pose of George Edwards to Edward Wise, who also holds the ox-eye cup, also known as the strangers’ cup.
What first drew me to this portrait was the loose painterly style which the artist has used to apply the paint, some of the ground can even be seen showing through in the background wall and in the clothes of George Edwards. This loose painterly style reflects how quickly this portrait must have been painted, perhaps due to the limited time the butler would have had to sit for this painting. Furthermore, I think this loose style gives a sense of the vibrancy of the character of George Edwards and shows how active he was, emphasised by him being depicted polishing a cup. This looser style of painting also makes this painting stand out from its surrounding portraits, which have been painted with less noticeable brush marks and more attention to realism. This, however, is not a criticism of the the artist, Oliver Thomas’, work – rather an observation. Oliver Thomas, in the 1960s, increasingly handled paint with more freedom in order to record information faster; this stemmed from his love of landscape painting and desire to paint on the spot because he did not trust representations offered to him by photographs.
Oliver Thomas was a boy at Eton studying art under Robin Darwin (later Principal of the RA) and went on to study at the Chelsea School of Art in 1937. After the interruption of war (spent as a POW in Singapore) there was a further period of study at oxford from 1946 to 1948. His first role in a teaching position was as a student teacher at King’s College, Newcastle, then part of Durham University. Finally he returned to Eton in 1949 and became director of art in 1959 before leaving in 1972. Despite his love of landscape painting he also accepted commissions for portrait painting from the 1970s onwards; this would make this portrait of George Edwards one of his earlier portraits. And his strong ties to the school explain why he probably received the commission to paint this college butler just three years after he left the school for the second time. After this portrait he was commissioned to paint some notable portraits including a portrait of Christopher Clayton (President of the Royal College of Physicians).
By William Chalmers (PEPW)