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Several celebrated travellers have set forth from Leicester. Among them there was Thomas Cook (1808–1892) pioneer of tourism by rail and sea, opening up the world to the masses. And a century later, David Attenborough, the naturalist, travelogue and broadcaster who, with fearless camera crews, has brought the world to us. In a procession of television films, each series more ground-breaking than the last, Sir David has revealed the beauty, scale and complexity of our world. We see it as no human before us ever has. It was only natural that, as his 90th birthday approached, the City of Leicester resolved to commemorate this son of the city by commissioning a portrait of Sir David to hang in the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery – which, since the nineteenth century, has been a repository of important fossil specimens unearthed in nearby Charnwood Forest (the young David’s fossil-gathering playground).

And who better to paint his portrait than Bryan Organ, another son of Leicester, an artist whose subjects have defined the last half century of British life. Among his seven paintings in the National Portrait Gallery are: Roy Strong (1971), Harold Macmillan (1980), Charles, Prince of Wales (1980), Diana, Princess of Wales (1981), Lord Denning (1982), Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1983) and Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan (1983).

Organ’s Attenborough in Paradise (Portrait of Sir David Attenborough) was completed over a one-year period and was finally unveiled at the Museum by the sitter in 2016. The finished work demonstrates how a painted image can go deeper than most single-shot photographic portraits. The initial impression is of a relaxed Sir David – sitting side-on, characteristically twisted towards the viewer, with one arm draped on his garden chair. Or maybe a director’s chair? There’s an ambiguity in the pose: a man resting from recent travels but also a man ready to head back to the great outdoors, back to the jungle that is seen through the window framing the explorer. On the flanking walls, like slips on a theatrical stage, hang trophies charting Attenborough’s long career of film-making: from the black and white Zoo Quest (1954–1963), where he is seen cradling his adopted chimpanzee, to later series (such as The Life of Birds) – by which time his work was broadcast to millions in glorious colour. We shouldn’t forget that during his time as Controller of the innovative BBC Two Sir David inaugurated the BBC’s first colour TV transmission.

And that genial look over the shoulder. Here too an ambivalence: who do we see? An urbane, genial raconteur? Or maybe a sharp-eyed inquisitor, a man scrutinising and dissecting the world?  The answer is both: the artist has created a mosaic of overlays. Organ himself says that in each of his many sittings with Attenborough he saw a different side to his subject. He combined and adjusted his many impressions, assisted by his numerous studies and layouts on paper. The result is a composite image that delivers complexity as well as a recognisable likeness. A neat trick.

Choosing the artist for the museum’s commission was not difficult. They already owned Organ’s portrait of David’s older brother, actor and director Richard (later Lord) Attenborough. Organ had, over the years, become a good friend of the late Lord Attenborough, having painted no less than five portraits of him. The New Walk Museum painting (completed in 1986) shows ‘Dickie’ seated – as with David – in a director’s chair. He sits facing straight at the viewer full-on, his cheek supported against his hand, with a wry expression hovering between humour and impatience. One senses the friendship between sitter and artist. Depicted from a low angle, he appears slightly raised, slightly superior to the onlooker. The tonal range of browns and yellows recalls the heat and dust of India: a poster of one of Attenborough’s epic films, Ghandi, appears behind him.

The atmosphere is warmer and more internal than the more recent portrait of David, which in contrast is cool and airy with its watery blue-green tones. Organ exploits the natural white of the canvas to illuminate the portrait of Sir David. The paint is thinly applied allowing the blocking grid of pencil lines (also seen in the preparatory sketches) to show through. The artist does not intend to disguise a time-honoured technique of scaling up from sketch to canvas, reminding the viewer of the portrait’s artifice – an assemblage of sittings and minutely adjusted points-of-view.

Asked what it was like to paint David Attenborough, Organ says: ‘Very complex, very enjoyable. David was hugely enthusiastic and totally cooperative’. The resulting painting, which took a year to complete, is a worthy pendant to Organ’s 1985–1986 portrait of Richard. The brothers are united in their home city, and by an artist (like the present writer) who attended the same school.

Today – placed among fossil trophies collected around the dawn of Darwinism – Attenborough’s look of a keen-eyed scientist recalls that ‘other’ great evolutionist, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913), another explorer to sally forth from the city of Leicester.

Lars Tharp, historian, lecturer and broadcaster

Did you know?
  • Over ten species have been named after Sir David Attenborough, and include prehistoric creatures, a pygmy locust and a carnivorous plant
  • Sir David co-curated a 2008 exhibition drawn from early scientific images in the Royal Collection called 'Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery'
  • Portraitist Bryan Organ is godfather to Prince Harry