Thursday, January 4, 2024

who's left?

A few years ago I got into a strange argument with Mike Glyer. Mike published a photo of four men sitting in a row (actors in character in A Clockwork Orange), and identified one of them as on the "far left."

I pointed out in comments that this was potentially ambiguous. The one sitting furthest to the left in the row was not the one whose head was furthest to the left, because the one sitting second was leaning forwards. So which are you going by, body or head?

Mike replied heatedly that there was no ambiguity, that it was obviously the head, that no sensible person would think otherwise, and that it was pedantic even to raise the question.

But I still thought there was ambiguity there. The problem has been sitting in the back of my mind ever since. What I needed was a well-known and often-cited picture with the same ambiguity to it, to see how the people in it are cited. And I've found one.

This is a drawing by "Spy" (Leslie Ward) of the members of a ginger group in the 1880s UK Parliament known as the "Fourth Party". The one standing on the left is the group's leader, Lord Randolph Churchill (now best remembered as the father of Sir Winston Churchill1). Sitting relaxed on the right is John Gorst (later Sir John).

But what interests us is the two in the middle. The one leaning back with his legs thrust out and his head against the backboard is, as you'll recognize if you've seen any other renderings of him, Arthur Balfour (many years later, as Foreign Secretary, promulgator of the Balfour Declaration). And the one sitting upright with his hand on a book is Sir Henry Drummond Wolff.

So which of them is further left, Balfour or Wolff?

Some reproducers of this drawing, like the National Portrait Gallery and Winston Churchill's biography of his father, agree with Mike and give Wolff first in a left-to-right listing of the four, because his head is further to the left.

But some don't, and list Balfour first, because he's sitting to the left.

Wikipedia goes by the bodies.

So does a 1915 print (look at the caption), and the sales catalog that lists it.

Notice that these give no indication of what basis they're choosing the ordering by. The ones that go by bodies are just as certain that that's the obvious way to list them as the ones that go by heads are.

It's ambiguous, OK? It's ambiguous.

1. A fate that would have surprised him considerably: during his lifetime – he died when Winston was 20 – he never thought his son would amount to much.


  1. I wonder if there is a shift over time in the relative preferences for the two?

    I wonder whether it is a question of head vs. body, or if it is one of preferred frame of reference.

    In the latter perspective, both views do rely on the head, but one view would give preference to the frontal view as the common (and preferred) frame of reference, whereas the other view would appear to give preference to the perspective from which the viewer sees the scene as the frame of reference, and would count them completely differently if they were seen from the back or from the other side ... i.e. rejecting the idea of one preferred frame of reference.

    It is tempting to make analogues to other than left-to-right ordering of figures in a picture here, but I shall nonetheless refrain from that 😉

  2. What if instead of saying "far left" I had said "on the left of the photo"?

    Thinking about it now, the person in the back is farther from the camera's viewpoint, therefore by including the word "far" I either created ambiguity or error, when my motive was to be as clear as possible which of the four men was Clarke.

    1. "on the left of the photo" helps, but not sufficiently to erase the ambiguity. "Leaning forward" would have done it.
      There is no danger of misinterpreting "far" on a near-far axis because you wrote "far left", which specifies a left-right axis. But it still leaves ambiguous whether "left" is to be measured along the bench or by the placement of the heads.