Investigating Portraits

In this session, Clare Cory, Learning Officer at the Ashmolean Museum, will take us behind the scenes to learn more about the portraits in the Ashmolean Museum’s collections. The Ashmolean Museum is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. It was founded in 1683 and is the oldest public museum in Britain! Their collections range from Egyptian mummies, to Pre-Raphaelite paintings, to contemporary art. This session will equip you with the questions to ask and the things to look out for that you need to become an art detective!  

First, watch the video below introducing you to a portrait of Gianfrancesco Sagredo from the Italian Renaissance. 

Clare suggests that we could think about Gianfrancesco Sagredo’s portrait as a Renaissance ‘selfie’! What would you include in your own self-portrait and what would you want those things to say about you?

Portraits through time

Now watch the next video. In this video, Clare takes us on a whistle-stop tour of portraits through time from an ancient Egyptian mummy portrait to a seventeenth-century portrait of the museum’s founder, Elias Ashmole.


  1. Explore the Ashmolean’s 10 Things to Do with a Portrait resource here.
  2. Create a photographed portrait or self portrait making choices about your face, pose, clothes, objects, setting and background.
  3. Experiment with changing elements of the picture. How do the changes affect the overall impression of the portrait?
  4. Search online and find an unusual portrait and explain what you like or dislike about it. You can explore the Ashmolean’s collections online here or paintings in the National Portrait Gallery here.

Portraits and personality

Now watch Clare’s video below. This video focuses on how portrait painters have captured the personalities of their sitters through setting, composition and painting techniques.  


  1. Search online for examples of portraits from 1950 onwards, e.g. portraits by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Jenny Saville. What do you notice about the range of styles, materials and approaches? Which artist do you like most and why?
  2. Look at examples of photographic portraits. What are the advantages and disadvantages of photography versus drawing or painting?
  3. Create and curate your own digital portrait exhibition. You could use the free Pic Collage app. Collect images of portraits and write your own gallery labels for them using your own words, drawing your viewers’ attention to what interests you as the curator of the exhibition.
  4. Keep creating and collecting your own portraits, taking photographs or drawing simple sketches of people.

Further resources

You can find even more resources to explore on the Learning section of the Ashmolean Museum’s website here. To find out more about the Ashmolean’s collections, you can also listen to their podcast, Museum Secrets, here.

This resource was created by Clare Cory, Learning Officer: Secondary & Young People at the Ashmolean Museum for the St John’s Inspire Programme Summer School.

Share with us!

We would love to see any examples of work that you do during your Inspire Summer School. This can be a photo of something you have made, a picture you have drawn, some written work (e.g. the start of a speech, or the answer to a question we asked), or some thoughts you have about what you have learnt! Submit your work to us through this form.

All pupils who share their work with us by August 31 2021 will receive a certificate of participation in the summer school and will be entered into a prize draw! A £10 Amazon voucher will be awarded to each winning entry, selected randomly from all submissions. If you give us permission, your entry may be shared on Inspire Digital and our social media alongside your first name.