New portrait commission of Dr Ed Smith

In keeping with University tradition since it was founded, a new portrait has been commissioned of outgoing Pro-Chancellor Dr Ed Smith. The portrait, by eminent portrait artist Fiona Graham-Mackay, is now on display in the Aston Webb Building.


Ed Smith portrait - Installed in Aston Webb Building 1

Fiona Graham-Mackay, Portrait of Dr Ed Smith, Pro-Chancellor 2010-2020, 2020, Oil on canvas

Research and Cultural Collections

The Pro-Chancellor chairs the University’s governing body, the Council, which is responsible for the mission and strategic vision of the University, institutional performance and long-term business planning. Dr Ed Smith has held the role of Pro-Chancellor for over 10 years, and his impressive career spans business, the public sector and higher education. He has formerly held senior posts at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Higher Education Funding Council for England, Chatham House, Department of Transport and World Wide Fund for Nature and currently at the NHS.

During his time at the University, Ed has played a key role in many significant University developments:

Reflecting on the last 11 years, it’s great to see the physical changes - the main library, the sports centre, the Green Heart, the Bramall and the Collaborative Teaching Laboratory. It’s wonderful to have been part of establishing Dubai, the University School, the Institute of Translational Medicine, the High Temperature Research Centre and initiating Birmingham Health Innovation Campus and The Exchange - Dr Ed Smith

As part of a long held tradition at the University, each outgoing Pro-Chancellor has their portrait painted by a significant portrait artist at the end of their time in office.  The Pro-Chancellor portraits, alongside portraits of outgoing Vice- and Pro-Vice-Chancellors, are on display in the historic heart of campus, in the Vice Chancellor’s corridor, the Great Hall and other adjoining spaces in Aston Webb Building. These portraits reveal the fluctuating histories of the individual and the times in which they lived, as well as the way the academic institution understands and represents itself to the wider world.

The process of portrait painting begins with the relationship between the sitter and the artist. This chemistry determines the success of the portrait, how well the sitter’s likeness can be captured and communicated to others. It is inevitably a leap of faith on behalf of the sitter, entrusting their representation to the artist, and sharing enough about themselves to enable the artist to create a painting which captures something of the individual behind their professional responsibilities.

Starting with trepidation at the prospect of being on canvas turned to jubilation when Fiona showed me her work  – Dr Ed Smith

Ed Smith Portrait - artist Fiona Graham-Mackay with portrait sketch

Fiona Graham-Mackay is an eminent British portrait painter. She has painted a variety of commissioned portraits of significant public figures from Prince Michael of Kent and foreign secretary Lord Carrington, to literary icons including Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion and Lemn Sissay.

Graham-Mackay studied at the Royal College of Art under Quentin Blake. She has exhibited and talked about her practice widely including National Portrait Gallery BP Awards, The National portrait Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Mall Gallery in London.

Her portraits are intimate and have a direct but contemplative quality, capturing sitters at moments of quietude, away from their public responsibilities in what often feels like a moment of privacy or subtle recognition. They are exquisitely detailed, with particular emphasis around the eyes and the hands which often give so much away about a person.

Ed Smith Portrait Details - Eyes

Fittingly, Fiona’s portrait of Seamus Heaney, on display in the Athenaeum in London, had captured Ed’s attention and admiration for many years, so her selection to paint his portrait had roots much further back than their first meeting in 2018.

The final portrait goes someway to capture the open rapport the two shared almost immediately. Ed’s quiet glance toward the artist – and now us as the viewer - and his hands held loosely in his lap, lend to the painting an air of open dialogue. The portrait feels as though it might speak at any moment. The background depicts a low wintry sky, captured from Fiona’s first visit to the Edgbaston campus and the iconic redbrick buildings of the Clock Tower and Chancellor’s Court as viewed from the windows of the new library building development.

What is remarkable about this portrait is that it was created almost entirely during the global coronavirus pandemic which has impacted life unimaginably throughout 2020; restricting travel, physical interaction, socialising and limiting access to so many resources which would usually be common place. Fiona’s commitment to create the work despite these challenges and the great likeness she was able to achieve are a testament to her skills as an artist, and her absolute tenacity as a person.

Most of it was done remotely which made the finished portrait all the more remarkable and demonstrated Fiona’s immense talent – Dr Ed Smith

From an unprecedented time of solitude and isolation came a portrait which captures a real personal connection between artist and sitter, one which can be enjoyed by viewers of the painting for years to come.

Ed Smith portrait - Installed in Aston Webb Building 3