Art detective solves portrait riddle

By Stuart Robinson

AN EXHIBITION at Wakefield Art Gallery sparked an internet investigation into the identity of the subject of a popular portrait.

The Personal Choice exhibition included a portrait by Frank Lisle of Donald Rooum, which prompted visitors to ask: “Who was Donald Rooum?”

Gallery records drew a blank but Arts Officer Mary Matthews decided to investigate for herself.

A search on the internet uncovered the name of an illustrator in London so she sent an e-mail to the man to ask if the portrait was of him.

She said: “It was a completely random email but it turned out I'd sent it to the very same Donald Rooum.

“He's now 80 and hadn't seen the portrait since it was painted in 1952 and was delighted to have the chance to see it after all these years.

“It was a real boost to know my detective work had paid off and I could reunite a painting with its muse – if only for a few minutes.”

Mr Rooum was in the same class as David Hockney at Bradford College of Art when the Head of Art, Frank Lisle, painted the picture.


He explained that Lisle had thought about calling the portrait The Anarchist because of Donald's political beliefs.

Mrs Matthews added: "If it had been called The Anarchist, then we would never have found Donald.

“And the story doesn't end there. Within a couple of days of contacting him, I received a call from Frank Lisle's widow totally out of the blue so we spoke about the portrait.

“The final instalment to the story came a few days later when Donald's twin sisters – now in their 70s – made a special trip from Bradford to see the portrait they hadn't known existed.

“They were thrilled to see it and in the course of some reminiscences it transpired that one of the sisters, Denise, had herself exhibited some of her art work at Wakefield Art Gallery in open exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The gallery staff are hoping for one more chapter in this tale – a visit from Donald Rooum himself when he comes up from London to visit his sisters later this year.

l Wakefield Art Gallery on Wentworth Terrace is open Tuesday-Saturday 10.30am-4.30pm; and Sunday 2-4.30pm. Admission is free.