At first glance the Master of Trinity, Sir Gregory Winter, appears in a melee of swooping arrows, one larger-than-life hand raised. Then you notice his other hand firmly grasping a steely arrow.
This is, of course, an artistic depiction of Sir Gregory and the breakthrough molecule that led to the development of antibody-based drugs to treat cancer and auto-immune diseases.
The Master explained that the melee of arrows was based on a physical model of part of an antibody that he had in his study.
My model represents a polypeptide chain arranged into regular strands, the direction of the chain indicated by the arrows. The strands form a framework with three loops at the top; it is these loops that antibodies use to lock onto their targets – such as viruses or bacteria.
The commanding portrait by David Cobley encapsulates the fascinating story of a Cambridge scientist grappling with the commercial world in order to develop a new class of pharmaceutical drug and transform healthcare.
Sir Gregory explained:
Antibodies evolved to defend us from infectious agents and are extremely effective; in my own work I have tried to summon up their remarkable powers to defend us from non-infectious diseases such as cancer and autoimmune disorders.
In the 1970s Cambridge scientists made a breakthrough, succeeding in making mouse (monoclonal) antibodies that locked onto human cancer cells. However in patients the mouse antibodies were recognized as foreign and were destroyed before they could mount an effective attack on the cancer.
Sir Gregory’s solutions to this problem came through his application of recombinant DNA technology – cutting, pasting, mutating, combining and synthesising genes. By tailoring the antibody genes, he was able to transform the antibody proteins they encoded. In particular, by transplanting the loop regions from mouse to human antibodies, he created ‘humanised’ antibodies that attacked cancer cells but were not recognised as foreign in patients.
Subsequently, Sir Gregory created a huge repertoire of entirely human antibodies from which he could extract those locking onto pharmaceutical targets. Today, therapeutic antibodies account for a third of all new treatments with predicted global sales of nearly US$125 billion by 2020.
So it is fitting that the protein molecule features so prominently in the portrait – which was precisely the artist’s intention.
For Cobley, a portrait must not only be a faithful likeness and pleasing to the eye, but it should also be ‘visually memorable, stimulate the brain and provoke discussion.’
The model in the Master’s study inspired him, as he explains:
It is something he is clearly very pleased to have. I have portrayed him physically grappling with the molecule.
He has a childlike playfulness about him and was happy to let me experiment with ways of bringing it into the picture. If you look carefully, it isn’t clear where the sculpture, which I have interpreted quite freely, begins and ends. In places it becomes a part of Greg, and vice versa.
Commissioned by Trinity last year and unveiled in Hall just before Lent term began, the painting heads a line of portraits of Trinity Masters along the left-hand-side of the seventeenth-century Dining Hall.
The Keeper of the Pictures, Paul Simm, who helps each Master in the process of choosing an artist and organises the commission and installation, likes this modern depiction of the Master.
Sir Gregory’s dynamic stance is accentuated by the light, which Cobley explains:
As he recognises himself, there is a surreal, even Frankenstein-like quality about what he and his fellow scientists are doing, and the lighting helps suggest this.
A regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Cobley has painted writers, judges, scholars, businessmen and generals. His portraits of the entertainer Ken Dodd and Professor Sir Martin Evans hang in the National Gallery.
He started out as an illustrator and painted in his spare time. After being shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award in 1989, portrait commissions gradually took over from illustration work.