Paul Johnson

Learning with delight the art of having your portrait painted

Learning with delight the art of having your portrait painted

Text settings

I have had my portrait painted. It was not my idea. One fault I do not possess is vanity. Indeed I am extremely vain about not being vain. The artist is a young lady called Katrina Bovill. She has been properly trained in Florence where they still have the highest possible standards of fine-art teaching, and she knows exactly what she wants to do and how to do it. She is the best young painter I have come across for many years, and it does my old heart good to relish such a rare combination of talent, skill, professionalism and disciplined enthusiasm. I met her at that magical caravanserai of writers, artists and bibliophiles, ‘Sheila’s Shop’ (Notting Hill Books is its official title), and it was Katrina’s idea to paint me. I agreed at once (she is very pretty) as I had a premonition it was going to work. Her studio is one of those big, comfortable airy ones, with a huge north light, in Bedford Gardens — the most agreeable one I have seen since last visiting 31 Tite Street, the magnificent place from which Julian Barrow, London’s hardest-working artist, operates, and which was once J.S. Sargent’s.

Katrina put me on a high chair and had me looking upwards, as if at a source of celestial inspiration — what I call the Elijah Posture. She sets to work quickly and without fuss, having all her brushes and materials ready, carefully prepared beforehand. Unlike Sargent and, before him, Thomas Lawrence, she is not chatty and does not invite confidences from the sitter. Lawrence picked up a tremendous amount of gossip from the high and mighty who sat to him (or stood in most cases) and then passed it on to his RA colleague and mentor, Joseph Farington, whence it appears in the Farington Diaries (Yale, XVI vols, 1978-84). Sargent drew his sitters out to make them, as he said, ‘comfortable’, but whatever they told him, being a gentleman to a fault, he kept strictly to himself, like his sex-life (if any). Katrina does not talk, or wish to be talked to, at all, as it disturbs her concentration, which is intense and continuous for the entire sitting. I have rarely seen such absolute dedication to the task in hand.

The concentration is necessary because of Katrina’s method of portrait painting. She makes no preliminary sketches on paper. She does no under-drawing on the canvas. She simply paints direct from sight, exactly like Caravaggio. But, unlike him, she does not start at the dynamic centre of the canvas, and work outwards, centrifugally, but starts at the top and works downwards. I have never met this way of painting before and would not have thought it possible had I not experienced it and seen it work. It contradicts Mary Cassatt’s emphatic maxim, ‘Always start with the eyes,’ which is another version of Caravaggio’s centrifugality. It places enormous reliance on the sheer accuracy of the artist’s vision and the perfect co-ordination between eye, brain and hand. Katrina has very large, luminous eyes, and close observation shows they are an unusual combination of blue, hazel and green. She has big, strong painter’s hands too, and confirms my father’s observation, based on many years of art teaching, that ‘you can usually tell a good painter by his physical characteristics, eyes, hands and so forth’.

Katrina’s method makes for deliberate speed, a relentless and seemingly inexorable covering of the canvas with paint. She required only three sittings of a little over one hour each. In the first she did my hair and the top part of my face down to the upper lip; in the second she did the bottom half; in the third she did the rest and gave the head and shoulders as a whole a high finish. While painting she gives no outward sign of satisfaction, other than an occasional triumphant stamp of her foot on the studio floor or, more frequently, an upward motion of her brush after she has made a particularly accurate and successful stroke on the canvas, raising it high into the air just as a concert pianist pulls his hands majestically from the piano after a cascade of notes. When she was done, on the third sitting, all she said was, ‘It’s finished.’ And it was. No doubts, hesitations, arrière-pensées, fiddling. No pentimentista, she.

The result is powerful, fresh, vivid, a superb likeness but also a formidable painting in its own right. This is the style of portraiture which appeals to me, the face and the character caught, as it were, in the heat and glow of life. It reminds me of the work of Frans Hals, who seems to have painted his burgesses and cavaliers, and their jovial, bosomy wives and daughters, exactly as they were in the full flush of busy existence, happy just to be alive and enjoying food, drink, love and sunlight. Neither he nor they thought for the morrow or what art historians would say in hundreds of years. Unlike his contemporary, Rembrandt, Hals never pointed a moral or disturbed the conscience. He simply gloried in paint, brushwork and light. Another such painter was Fragonard, like Katrina with marvellous eyesight and control of the hand, who could work at a portrait sketch in oil with total concentration and amazing fluency, then suddenly declare, ‘It’s finished.’ Sometimes he wrote on the back of the canvas, ‘Painted in one hour of time.’

It is a good general rule that the better a painter is, the more rapidly he proceeds to achieve his effects. Rubens was a monstrously fast worker, once he had pondered his disegno to his satisfaction, and tried it out with one or two of those dazzling oil sketches of which the great gallery in Munich has such a rich collection. And his pupil Van Dyck moved swiftly too, despite all the detail of his costumes, once he had positioned his subjects exactly as he wanted. If a great painter’s eye and hand are working at top pitch, mistakes are not made, hesitations are unnecessary, and all is deft, sure and expeditious. The faster a painter operates, knowing exactly what he is doing, the better the work will be, especially in a portrait, where spontaneity is so central to success.

The key to Sargent’s best work is the sheer nimbleness of his fingers and the rapidity with which his eye, brain and hand interacted. He rarely overpainted or rubbed out because he almost always got it exactly right the first time. One reason his women sitters look so fresh is that he did not weary and disillusion them with endless sittings. One of his most marvellous portraits of the beautiful but delicate Lady Agnew — the subject of an exhibition in Edinburgh some years ago — took only six sittings, though it is a virtual full-length and an extraordinary symphony of colour based upon pale mauve. When I hear of a portrait painter requiring dozens of long sittings, I wonder what on earth he is doing in all that time, and my instinct is to ask, ‘Is he not in the wrong business?’

All the same, there is a lot of luck in portrait painting. Katrina’s and my good fortune held until the end. When the work was dried, varnished and ready to be moved, we took it to the emporium of the great Mr Lacy in Westbourne Grove. I often say he is the best framer in Europe, certainly in London. Within minutes we had found a delightfully apposite encadrement, so far as period, colour and material went. With anxious fingers we put in the canvas. It fitted perfectly. This, Katrina and I agreed, was a direct intervention of the deity. The portrait now hangs in my library and is being much admired. (