The portrait hanging in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union shows a rather grumpy looking old boy seated in an armchair, heavily bearded and clutching an unlit pipe in his right hand.

Anyone glancing at it might assume that the old gentleman was a distinguished if long forgotten academic, perhaps a former master of one of the Oxford colleges, a benefactor of the union.

In fact the portrait, the work of Royal Academician James Gunn, is of the Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc painted in old age at his home in Sussex.

And the reason why his portrait hangs in the Oxford Union, as it has done for many years now, is that as a young undergraduate at Balliol College (1893-5) Belloc was once the union’s president, and regarded as one of the most brilliant speakers ever to take part in its debates.

“From Mr Belloc,” the university magazine Isis reported, “ you get a speech different from anything you will hear in the Union … the freedom of his conversation is admirable, he scintillates with enthusiasm on all things – boats, riding, Shakespeare, running across country.”

Traditionally regarded as a nursery for would-be politicians, the union had known few who seemed more destined for success than Belloc. But although he stood for Parliament and was elected Liberal member for Salford in the great Liberal landslide of 1906, Belloc was too restless a character to pursue a political career. He stood down in 1910.

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