Last Saturday I went to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was the second time I’d been. Last year’s winner, Charlotte Harris, painted a canvas four feet square of her grandmother, just her head and shoulders. The old woman’s skin has a translucent fragile quality. She’s looking down with a pensive expression – what was she thinking? What stories could she tell? This year’s winner, Stephen Shankland, painted a mother and child; nothing like those we see in religious paintings, but a real flesh and blood young woman looking straight at you, while her baby plays with a ring. The artist has captured a moment, probably with the aid of photographs. It’s almost impossible to paint small children and animals in the same way that you can paint an adult – they won’t keep still.
I sometimes paint or draw portraits. It’s a wonderful excuse to stare at someone, to study his or her face, and it was useful when I worked as a supply teacher with difficult children. I’d bribe them to behave with the promise of a picture to take home to their mum. One surly youth, who’d sauntered into the room with a belligerent attitude, agreed to sit for me and the rest of the class. We drew him in his skin-tight black jeans, black shirt, and Doc Martin boots. I never heard a peep out of him all lesson, and at the end he carried off his prize, very pleased with himself. Why? He was vain, and he’d been the centre of attention for an hour or so, without really trying. There are other portraits like that boy in the black shirt, some of them hundreds of years old, showing young men posing with that ‘look at me’ expression that seems to say, aren’t I the bee’s knees?
We talk about creating a likeness of someone – not a copy, a ‘likeness’, a resemblance. A portrait can be very formal or very loose, but there must be something there that you can recognise. I’ve heard that some primitive tribes are, or were, afraid of cameras, because they thought they stole something from them; a part of their life force, or their soul. There’s some truth in that. George Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.’ Shaw meant our essential nature, the centre of our personality, intellect, will and emotions. A good portrait artist will capture some of that, without taking anything away.