When my daughter, Deia, turned one, her father commissioned a portrait of her and me. A friend recommended Stephen B. Whatley, whose website boasts a list of celebrity commissions including Julie Walters and Matthew Williamson. The price, though a special one for friends, was steep at £5,000, but Stephen persuaded us we were investing in a work of art.
I learnt the hard way that most people dislike their portraits unless they flatter. Portraiture is a subjective medium and it means surrendering your personality to the artist to make of it what he will. I do not particularly like how I look in the painting but that’s beside the point. I enjoyed the experience and was fascinated to see my daughter and me through another’s eyes. Stephen insists his is a painting about tenderness.
I began thinking about the ways in which we build up histories of ourselves. There are hardly any photographs of me as a child but I do have a vivid memory of sitting in a chilly attic while my five-year-old head was modelled in clay. The bust sits on my bookcase today.
Many of my friends were immortalised in clay and bronze or drawn in sepia, chalk or ink. I remember a dining-room dominated by two vast charcoal portraits by A. Vidal-Quadras, showing my friend and her siblings in full riding regalia.
Anyone with money can commission a portrait. The sculptor David Williams-Ellis has a list of clients ranging from the Duchess of Abercorn to Bryan Ferry’s sons and he’s easily reachable via Google. If you want to be drawn or painted, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters has a website that helps you find the right artist. You can have your children photographed by a range of photographers from Hugo Burnand, the Tatler ‘Bystander’, to Rankin.
We’re spoilt for choice but that’s not the problem with choosing the right medium for immortality these days. It’s that, since the invention of the digital camera, we have become frantic about capturing every waking moment of our offsprings’ lives. In this snap-happy culture, the commissioned portrait is an endangered species.
When my daughter ripped off her tinsel crown and left the stage right in the middle of her nativity play, I turned to smile apologetically at my fellow parents but no one had noticed Deia’s tantrum. Behind a wall of cameras, every parent was intent on framing the second their own little darling excelled as an angel, a wise man or a sheep.
As a film-maker by profession, I like to dump my camera at the end of the day. Consequently, I have failed to shoot milestones like Deia taking her first steps or opening her Christmas stocking. I’ll just have to cherish my memory of those moments and perhaps it will be all the sweeter as a result.
So preoccupied are we with recording life nowadays that we are almost forgetting how to live it. As a sign of the times, a big glossy brochure recently plopped importantly on to my doormat. It was from ‘eDv, the family media company’. eDv offers a range of services, including organising your growing pile of snaps and video footage into ‘albums’ and ‘media edits’. They claim that, ‘Like nothing else, a film can capture the stories of a life and the essence of love.’
It’s as if we no longer trust our emotions, let alone our memories, without a digital image as proof they existed. Now that we even have cameras in our telephones, there is absolutely nothing we cannot record. I saw a mother filming her baby in a supermarket trolley yesterday, and it’s becoming de rigueur to provide disposable cameras at parties to encourage guests to snap away at each other.
As these vast archives build up, often in our computers, I wonder who will ever have time to look at them. At least a portrait is something we can perman-ently display, even if it doesn’t flatter. I’m all for abandoning our digital cameras and trusting the experts. After all, my clay head has long outlived countless fading snaps, as Stephen’s painting will. A portrait is more than a grabbed image of an instant. It’s alchemy between sitter and artist. It has hinterland, history and texture and we never forget sitting for it.
As Philip Mould, whose Dover Street gallery deals in historical portraits, reminded me, ‘The “Mona Lisa” is a portrait.’ Give me a portrait rather than a shelf full of DVDs gathering dust any day.
Stephen B. Whatley
The Royal Society of Portrait Painters
Philip Mould Historical Portraits