Glimpses of Girton - 'The Dentist' by William Bowyer


Portrait: ‘The Dentist’ by William Bowyer (RA Hon. RP Hon. NEAC RWS, 1927-2015), 1975 (oil on canvas)


This portrait was added to the People’s Portraits exhibition in September 2016. It was unveiled at the annual People’s Portraits reception and the College was delighted that Jason Bowyer (son of William Bowyer), Vera Bowyer (William’s widow) and Laura Cumming (the Observer’s art critic) were all present.


Jason Bowyer, himself a member of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, spoke to the audience. He talked warmly of his father and of his love of painting. He touched first on his father’s career, saying that William saw portraiture as a way to describe his feelings about people he knew and admired. He painted family, neighbours and friends, and his great mentors and former teachers, Ruskin Spear RA and Carel Weight RA, were the major influence on his painting. In the early 1980s, after early retirement from teaching, William received a number of commissions and he was delighted to have works purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, including a painting of the great West Indian batsman, Viv Richards. William himself played cricket well into his 70s.


Jason then focussed on the Dentist. He explained that William did not catalogue or document his paintings, and he did not have a CV - he just wanted to paint. As a result, the identity of the Dentist was unknown until Jason went online appealing for information. A former lodger of the Dentist identified him as Claude Walker, who had a dental practice in Chiswick High Street close to where William had his studio.


It is not known where the two met but it is likely that William encountered Claude in the local newsagent or even in the pub and had persuaded him to sit for his portrait. Claude probably only had four or five sittings for his portrait.


William painted him on a red ground with patches of green and would have slowly built up the portrait. William painted Claude in his studio; Jason explained that, for those who knew William’s studio, a few familiar objects are reflected in Claude’s glasses.


The pose is quite formal, perhaps even professional, with the white table placed in front of Claude. The design of the portrait is important, including the visual device of Claude’s head being just off centre. Jason explained that portrait painters are always trying to capture ‘that moment’, so William painting Claude with his mouth slightly open might have been more of a gesture, or Claude might have been just about to speak. The result is a gentleness and thoughtfulness, perhaps even a tentativeness, about him.


We believe Claude died in the 1980s. Sadly we have no record of what Claude thought about having his portrait painted. However, I think the whole audience were delighted when Laura Cumming named Claude as one of her favourite portraits of the exhibition.


The People’s Portraits exhibition is open to the public 9am-5pm daily – for information please visit:


Published: 31 January 2017