The “unsung heroes” of Cambridge University are the stars of what is the first portrait exhibition of college head porters.
Artist Louise Riley-Smith, who has previously painted senior academics, diplomats and landowners, spent two years painting the 25 men and women.
She said: “Their work is vital… yet they rarely seek the limelight.”
Head porters lead a team that staffs college entrances, greets guests, sorts post and provides 24-hour security.
Mrs Riley-Smith said: “They are the unsung heroes of the Cambridge colleges.
“They are responsible for health and safety, for all the students with their problems they are rather fatherly figures – and so much post comes in too, for the fellows and the students.”
Mrs Riley-Smith believes the only other portrait of a head porter was one at Magdalene College “painted many years ago”.
The project was proposed by her husband Jonathan, a retired history professor and Emmanuel College fellow, who described head porters as the college kingpins.
St John’s College head porter Steve Poppitt said: “I thought it was a bit of fun – and quite an honour, because unless you pay to commission a portrait, you’re not often going to be invited to have your portrait painted.”
The retired police inspector is pleased with the result and said: “She’s captured that look which my wife says I have.”
Until the 19th Century, portraiture was the preserve of the powerful, while “workers remain anonymous and unpainted”, according to Chris Owen, head of the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University.
“Photography is now the main way of preserving people’s features for posterity, while portraiture is retained for people who are seen as particularly important and in very traditional contexts.
“The interesting thing about these portraits is they are of porters who do an ordinary job in colleges where the masters have their portraits painted.”
Cambridge University has 31 colleges, but not all have head porters.
All but three of the head porters approached by Mrs Riley-Smith agreed to take part.
The exhibition opens in Cambridge on 18 June.