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King's Lecturer explores philosophical discussions through oil portraits

While working on her PhD, Dr Vanessa Brassey calmed her mind through working on a series of portraits entitled ‘The Philosophers’

The Philosophers, oil on canvas by Dr Vanessa Brassey
The Philosopher Series, oil on canvas by Dr Vanessa Brassey

Dr Vanessa Brassey is a self-taught artist and illustrator, who recently finished her PhD in the Department of Philosophy at the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at King’s. Since the first lockdown in March 2020, Vanessa has replaced her hobby – travel sketching – with desk sketching and easel painting. In a new project, Vanessa explores philosophical discussions through the painting of portraits of her colleagues and supervisors during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Paola Romero
Dr Paola Romero, oil on canvas and part of The Philosophers by Vanessa Brassey

Coming from a corporate background it must have been quite a change to jump into an academic career in philosophy. When did you realise you were interested in philosophy?

I literally fell into philosophy. In search of a script idea for a corporate project, I bumbled into a basement room in Senate House, where a research student was presenting a paper on the links between language and vision. Two hours later I emerged, blinking, from the cave.

I didn’t know at that point that I had been listening to philosophy. I certainly had never studied it. I mean, I’d read Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea when I was an undergrad but at that point Donna Tartt’s Secret History was more up my street. Bamboozled by the basement room I signed up for a part-time Masters in Philosophy at King’s.

Dr Sacha Golob
Dr Sacha Golob, oil on canvas and part of The Philosophers by Vanessa Brassey

Was it easy to make the change? Or did you struggle working in a new field?

I was utterly, wonderfully rubbish at it. So much so in fact I re-baptised myself the Bad Philosophy Writer. I’ll admit that I found my incompetency embarrassing rather than funny. I’m certain others found it tedious. But the actual material was too compelling just to give up and overall I’m pleased I stuck with it.

What was it like doing a PhD in the Philosophy Department? Would you recommend the experience to other students?

I finished writing my PhD in Spring 2020, had my viva in the summer and joined the Faculty of Arts & Humanities last September as a Lecturer. Owing to forces beyond my control, most of that was accomplished without leaving the chair I’m sitting in right now.

Writing a PhD is a discombobulating experience. At least it is in philosophy. You think you’ll spend hours pouring over texts thinking wise thoughts. But mostly you spend time looking in the fridge or urgently seeking coffee. Or being pathologically positive. The umpteenth rewrite? Fab. What about restructuring this whole section? Marvellous. You have to pace yourself. – Dr Vanessa Brassey

So, why do it?

Apart from the thrill of actually discovering the answer to a question, I’d say the main reason is that you get to talk with some incredible humans. Humans that are generous enough to help you find the answer to your question. Or help you refine the question. Or explain how you ask a good one. Or just tell you what someone else wrote when you can’t figure it out. Or show genuine interest in your research. Or spark new interests. Or help you locate your tiny contribution in the apparently infinite morass of ongoing investigations. These conversations clarify and console you. You are not the only nutter after all. Other people like this stuff too! You’ll have conversations that are so much fun you can’t quite believe you are having them.

Dr Sarah Fine
Dr Sarah Fine, oil on canvas and part of The Philosophers by Vanessa Brassey

It’s always interesting to hear the different experiences of PhD students – were the portraits a direct response to these conversations?

I noticed that each of the humans I enjoyed speaking with had a face. It’s fairly common I guess. Their faces would change when they were talking about something they were really, really interested in. When you are learning you need to listen and watch carefully. I wanted to see if I could encapsulate something of those important conversations as a record of my PhD adventure.

It has been a way of slowing down. Slow processing. Quiet thinking. Patient painting. Looking away from the storm of ideas and recharging for the inevitable editing ahead.– Dr Vanessa Brassey
Professor Anthony Savile
Professor Anthony Savile, oil on canvas and part of The Philosophers by Vanessa Brassey

Did you have to change any aspects of your practice when the Covid-19 pandemic started?

At first, I was able to draw my sitters while we chatted. Eventually, I was limited to Zoom or Teams or some other virtual interface. I’ve tried to keep the paintings unified though, at least in terms of style. I’ve kept a visual travel journal for years, so this felt like a natural extension of that private hobby. 

Find out more Vanessa's work on her website and Instagram account:

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Vanessa  Brassey

Vanessa Brassey

Lecturer, Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Art