Paul Johnson

Learning with delight the art of having your portrait painted

Learning with delight the art of having your portrait painted

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).

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