– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Portraits

Balliol has several painted representations of its founders, John de Balliol and Dervorguilla his wife; those pictures are shown above and in our online portraits catalogue. The images shown postdate the 13th century Balliols by at least 400 years and are not, strictly speaking, portraits at all. Probably the closest to a contemporary representation we have of Dervorguilla is the image on her seal, and that too is iconic rather than personal in the modern sense; the paintings clearly draw directly on the seal figure.

update/addition: enquiry

Q: In the Hall at Balliol is a painting of John de Balliol dressed in knight’s armour [see above]. Given no part of his face is visible, how do you know it is a painting of John de Balliol?

 A: The short answer is that it isn’t ‘a painting of John de Balliol’ at all. It was painted about 400 years after John de Balliol’s death – which occurred well before individual portraiture had become an artistic convention.

The undifferenced family crest on the shield (see http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/History/collegearms.asp) clearly denotes a principal armigerous member of the Balliol family, and the date of death inscribed on the pillar at right of the painting clarifies which one is intended. The portraits of his wife Dervorguilla and translator of the Bible in to English and one-time Master of Balliol John Wyclif, also in Hall, are similarly ‘icons’ of their subjects rather than any attempt at likeness.

update May 2013: Now that the Public Catalogue Foundation’s Your Paintings project is available on the BBC website, it is possible to view an image of the Bodleian’s ‘portrait’ (17th century) of Dervorguilla as well. Unfortunately, they have managed to misspell ‘Dervoguilla’ in Balliol’s two listings, so they won’t appear in searches unless you similarly misspell, but you can see all three together here.

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