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The portrait of Eric Liddell

... exposed in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
(0131 624 6200)

Eric Liddell in 1925
by Eileen SOPER

By Andrew Graham-Dixon
The Sunday Telegraph Magazine
27th August 2000

With the Olympic Games just a fortnight away, this week's picture is a rare portrait of the Scottish athlete and missionary Eric Liddell. It was painted in 1925, a year after the runner's startling victory in the men's 400 metres at the Paris Olympics, by an artist called Eileen Soper. Known chiefly for her collaboration with Enid Blyton, whose spiffing yarns for children she was to spend much of her life illustrating, Soper was only 20 when Liddell, a family friend, sat to her for his likeness. Her inexperience and relative lack of aptitude for painting in oils are reflected in the uneven quality of her picture; but although it is no masterpiece it seems to catch the man better than any of the surviving photographs of him, conveying both his personal intensity and his religious zeal. It was a great concession on Liddell's part to let Soper paint him, given that he was a strict evangelical Christian and a pillar of the Scottish Congregational Church, who preached against personal vanity and who disapproved of pictures ('graven images') on religious principle. No other portraits of him exist.

Soper has painted Liddell in a moment of contemplation rather than action. He looks up from the letter in his lap, staring into the middle distance with piercing blue eyes. There is a smile on his lips but something odd about his expression too, making him seem distant, as if entranced by some vision. Otherwise the artist presents him as the consummate clean-cut heroic young man - a full-grown version of the upright little chap she was later to draw when illustrating Enid Blyton's “Famous Five” stories.

Liddell's remarkable athletic exploits, which inspired the film Chariots of Fire, were themselves determined by his unwavering religious beliefs. He had been selected for the 1924 Olympics because of his blistering speed over 100 metres, in which he was favourite to win gold, but on learning that the heats were to be run on a Sunday he felt duty bound as a strict Sabbatarian to rule himself out. He got the scant consolation of bronze in the 200 metres but was considered a virtual no-hoper in his only other event, the 400, of which he had limited experience. The `Flying Scot' had what was thought to be an ugly, unorthodox style of running, too upright and stamina-sapping for him to succeed at longer distances. `His arms rotated like windmills in the air,' according to one observer, `and he would throw his head so far back that spectators would wonder whether he could actually see where he was going.'

On the day of the race Liddell surprised everybody except possibly himself. Drawn in the worst possible lane, on the extreme outside, he shot out of the blocks into an early lead, running the first half of the race in a time only marginally slower than that recorded by the 200-metres gold medallist. Everyone in the crowd waited for him to blow up and come back to the rest of the field, as he surely must, but he just seemed to keep going faster. As he crossed the line far ahead of his rivals, shattering the world record by almost half a second, he appeared to be looking directly skywards.

Not long after winning an Olympic gold, Liddell returned to Edinburgh to graduate from university. He was presented with his degree of Bachelor of Science, and the Edinburgh Evening News reported on the clamorous reception he received: `Mr Liddell was carried in a sedan-chair by the students through the streets, and was then crowned, like the ancient Greek Olympic victors, with an olive wreath. "Mr Liddell," the Vice-Chancellor of the university said to him, "you have shown that no one can pass you but the examiner." Liddell's head seems to have been remarkably unturned by this hero's welcome, and by the time Soper painted him he had already decided to give up his career in athletics and follow in his father's evangelical footsteps. That same year he left Britain forever to work in China as a missionary. Perhaps it was the spark of divinely inspired purpose that Soper tried to put into his unnervingly fixed expression.

Liddell died young, of a brain tumour, while interned in a Japanese camp at the end of the Second World War. It is impossible to say whether he ever gave much thought to the young woman who had painted his portrait after the Olympics; but we know that she thought about him.

Eileen Soper never married, dedicating herself to her modestly successful career as an illustrator and claiming to prefer the company of animals to that of people. As she grew older she lived in ever-increasing seclusion, rarely venturing beyond the sprawling, overgrown garden of the house she shared with her sister in the Hertfordshire countryside. During the latter stages of her long life she devoted most of her energies to painting the local fauna (badgers being her particular speciality) and became firm friends with Robert Gillmor, who was then President of the Society of Wildlife Artists.

After her death in 1990 Gillmor took on the task of sorting through the near chaos of her crowded house, and later wrote a short memoir about Soper and her work. He recalled opening the door to her studio for the first time: `As with her garden, Eileen had long ago lost control of this large room. Unable to throw anything away, every part was silted up with piles and heaps of paper, boxes, old mounts and overflowing cabinets and chests. At one end, a high-backed settle was piled high with framed pictures. In a corner stood a bag of ancient and rusty golf clubs and huge pottery jars held the remains of nuts and seeds, purchased in quantity to feed the birds.' On a great mahogany studio easel, in the middle of this space at the middle of her life, dominating it like some tutelary deity, he found 'Eileen's enigmatic portrait in oils of Eric Liddell.'

Now that the picture is in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, it is liable to seem more sober and less romantic. I wonder what Eric Liddell meant to Eileen Soper, and what really passed between them. The devout and speedy Scotsman with far-off excitable eyes is not letting on.