Ben Sullivan: A Portrait Commission

I have enjoyed being part of the process to commission a portrait by Ben Sullivan of Melvyn Roffe, the outgoing Principal of George Watson’s College, Edinburgh.

George Watson’s College, Edinburgh

George Watson’s College

Watson’s was established in 1741 and is a Royal Company of Merchants school. George Watson’s Ladies’ College opened in 1871 and the two institutions merged in 1974. There is a longstanding tradition of acquiring, and often commissioning, portraits of its Heads and Principals, many of which are displayed in the Assembly Hall of the Colinton Road campus.

Melvyn Roffe, Principal, George Watson’s College.
Photo: Alan Davison/Hero Creative

Melvyn Roffe

Melvyn Roffe was appointed Principal of Watson’s in 2014. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an Honorary Fellow of the College of Optometrists and a Burgess of the City of Edinburgh. He served as the Chair of the HMC Heads’ Conference for the 2022/23 Session. In September 2024, Roffe will take up the position of Chief Executive Officer of the Clifton College Education Group in Bristol. The portrait commission is to celebrate his decade of service at Watson’s, which included the period of COVID-19 lockdown and the resultant impact on the provision of education.

Ben Sullivan, Her Majesty The Queen, 2018
Royal Air Force Club, London © The Artist

The Commissioning Process

The College’s intention was that the process of commissioning and executing the portrait should be an educational, as well as an artistic endeavour, with pupils engaging with the existing school collection as never before. A Commissioning Committee was established, including staff and pupils and I was invited to join as a Consultant. Pupils were considered fundamental stakeholders in the initiative. At each stage, they were updated on progress, called upon to give their opinions, invited to discuss options and involved in next steps.

Some basic guidelines were established, namely that the College wished to commission an oil painting from an artist with links to Scotland. Research was undertaken by pupils into the College’s collection of portraits, consideration was taken of where the resultant commission was likely to be installed and there was a debate about how best to visualise Roffe’s contribution to the history of the school. An exploration of contemporary portraitists, not least through the Scottish Arts Trust’s Scottish Portraits Awards scheme and through discussion with art historians and curators, resulted in a clear favourite: Ben Sullivan.

Ben Sullivan, the commissioned artist, in his Suffolk studio. © Aliona Adrianova

Ben Sullivan

Sullivan was born in Grimsby in 1977 and trained at Edinburgh College of Art. He is one of his generation’s leading figurative painters. Sullivan was the youngest person to be elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the New English Art Club, in 2003 and 2001 respectively; in 2009, he was made a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers. Sullivan won the BP Portrait Award in 2017 and painted Her Majesty the Queen for the Royal Air Force Club in London in 2018. We were delighted when he accepted the Watson’s commission.

Work begins on the portrait, February 2024. Photo: Catherine Stratford

The Painting of the Portrait

Sullivan has made a series of visits to Watson’s, for sittings with Roffe and continuing discussion with a wide variety of school pupils. Topics have ranged from deciding a location and pose for the portrait, as well as Sullivan’s materials and working process. It has been a wonderful learning opportunity for the school’s aspiring artists to have such immediate and sustained involvement with an eminent practitioner and to see the transformation from idea to work of art. In parallel, a sympathetic rapport has built up between artist and sitter. Sullivan has now finished his preparatory studies and is to complete the portrait in his studio in Suffolk. It is to be unveiled at Watson’s in late June 2024.

For more about portraiture, you might enjoy this post and to go back to the days of homeschooling you might like this blog.

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