Portrait of Edna Longley Unveiled at Queen's

The scholar and critic enjoyed an 'interactive' experience in the presence of artist Jeffrey Morgan

Portraits are difficult things to get right. They must do more than capture the physical likeness of their subjects; they must also evoke a sense of their personality, their defining characteristics.

Ideally, a portrait should stand as a work of art in its own right. Conversely, there's something quite uncomfortable about a portrait that falls short. It diminishes the subject as well as the artist.

Fortunately, Jeffrey Morgan's new portrait of scholar and critic, Professor Edna Longley, unveiled on January 11 at Queen's University, Belfast, is a success on all three fronts.

Although quietly spoken, and with a modest manner, Longley is a formidable presence: one of the most influential critics writing on modern Irish and British poetry, she has also had a considerable effect on the literary culture of Northern Ireland, and was a moving force in the creation of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's.

In Morgan's portrait, that quiet strength is evident, particularly in Longley's steady, clear-eyed gaze, and her almost quizzical expression. She is shown sitting in a simple wooden chair, holding a pencil and a heavily annotated book of Yeats's poetry.

It seems that Morgan often asks his subjects to sit with symbolic items, objects that mean something to them: his portrait of Ciaran Carson, for example, shows the poet holding a boxwood flute, invoking his talent and passion for music.

In lesser hands, that approach could come across as contrived or artificial, but there is a warmth, colour and movement in Morgan's portraits – painted in oils on linen – that stops them from looking stiff. Longley herself described the painting of the portrait as an interactive process, rather than a passive posing, and it shows.

Professor Terence Brown of Trinity College Dublin was in charge of the unveiling itself, removing the dark velvet covering the portrait with a flourish. He said that Longley was 'not just a critic and a scholar, but one of the foremost public intellectuals that Ireland has produced'.

Praising Longley for her essentially celebratory approach to criticism – he quoted CS Lewis's remark that 'good criticism opens more books than it closes' – Brown paid particular tribute to her work on Louis MacNeice and the war poet Edward Thomas.

The painting of Longley is one of a series of portraits of Queen's women commissioned by the university, and Yvonne Galligan, director of Queen's Gender Initiative programme, spoke about the importance of making female role models visible in this way.

A noble plan, but the good thing is that there is nothing dry, earnest or worthy about this particular portrait. It's lively and engaging, and seems to capture not simply the female academic in Longley but the woman herself.

Speaking in response to the unveiling, Longley – who is married to the poet Michael Longley – was characteristically wry and self-deprecating, remarking that 'I don't think I've been unveiled since my wedding'.

The portrait will hang among those of other Queen's luminaries – the vast majority male but also featuring a portrait of former Irish president, Mary McAleese, amongst other – in the university's Great Hall. Longley said she fantasised about a Night at the Museum scenario, where all the portraits came alive. If they did, you can be sure that Longley would more than hold her own.