Creating New Public Portraits

Sandy Nairne

An important and particularly intriguing part of my work as Director of the National Portrait Gallery (2002-15) involved the commissioning of new portraits for the Collection. In 1969 the Trustees of the Gallery had started acquiring portraits of significant living persons alongside the many faces from British history, and in 1980 agreed to introduce a programme of commissioning. Up until 1969 the ‘ten-year rule’ had applied, and only those who were well dead (with the exception of the reigning monarch) could have their achievements and influence assessed as offering a ‘contribution to British history and culture’, as set out in the Gallery’s Act of Parliament. It was Roy Strong as Director who had persuaded the Trustees to include contemporary figures, and his successor John Hayes who initiated the commissions.

When I joined the Gallery I had rather naively believed that the programme could be expanded. However I quickly leaned that the complexities of the process itself combined with the restricted time on offer from important people (even when they were willing subjects), meant that good portraits take a considerable time to create. And so, each year, the Gallery would do well if five or six new works were unveiled, although we often managed to run additional photographic portrait projects alongside the newly commissioned paintings, sculptures or more complex digital works.

The commissioning process starts with the Gallery’s Trustees deciding which persons might be portrayed. Although I and other colleagues would suggest candidates – and there is also a process of public nomination – the Trustees considered a list of fields of achievement and helped propose key individuals within priority areas, mindful of the over-arching questions of gender, race and culture. It is always invidious (even round the Board Room table) to compare the public achievements of national figures across fields as diverse as social reform, philosophy, science, literature, politics or sport, but agreement on new names would gradually emerge. The choice of artist was delegated to myself as Director, and Contemporary Curator Sarah Howgate and I would together start the process of matching artist to sitter.

The relationship – between sitter and artist – is a delicate matter. It is a little like arranging a pairing of ballroom dancers, where the pair need to move in step and with a degree of submission to each other, but one partner is generally still learning the steps. When we approached Dame Judi Dench she was pleased to be portrayed, but it was clear that (because of filming commitments) her time would be very limited. She first met Alessandro Raho for a cup of tea in the Gallery restaurant. They got on well, but it was clear that we could only plan for one studio session, so Alessandro needed a clear conception of pose and dress almost before they began. He remembered how Judi Dench had stood waiting in the Ondaatje Wing Main Hall on the day of their meeting, and with this in mind he took a large number of stills in the studio from which to create his large-scale full length painting. The result is a brilliant combination of the grand and the informal. As the somewhat diminutive Judi Dench said at the unveiling: all that was missing was a label in a corner saying, ‘Not to scale’.

Dame Judi Dench by Alessandro Raho, oil on canvas, 2004 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Dame Judi Dench by Alessandro Raho, oil on canvas, 2004
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Willard White was initially reluctant to discuss being the subject of a commissioned portrait. He said later that he had held back because he could not imagine being seen on the Gallery’s walls. But luckily one or two of his friends found out about my approach and told him that such a portrait would not be for him, but for all those that admired his work as a great singer, particularly those knowing the remarkable story of his journey from Jamaica to take up a scholarship at the Juilliard School in New York. Once Willard was convinced to sit, the experienced artist Ishbel Myerscough seemed the best choice of someone who might capture in paint something of the strength of his character along with his brilliant interpretation and projection of music and text. Importantly, she would not be fazed by an extended and interrupted schedule, in relation to time in her studio. The result is magnificent, with a strong but somewhat quizzical expression on Willard’s face, and her choice of unusually bright single background colour.

Sir Willard White by Ishbel Myerscough, oil on canvas, 2009 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Willard White by Ishbel Myerscough, oil on canvas, 2009
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The scientist and inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, was an obvious choice for the Trustees, as a British subject of huge international importance. He was also somewhat reluctant, but his caution had a particular rationale, as for some years he found people using photographic portraits of him and attaching his image to campaigns or web-related developments, with which he had no connection. He was, therefore wary of potentially being further exploited, through a formal portrait. He is based at MIT in Boston and it took time for him to feel a suitable degree of confidence in the Gallery’s processes. But with the close support of his wife, Rosemary, he gradually became enthusiastic, and we worked towards the idea of a sculpted portrait, and Sean Henry became the chosen artist. Once Sean had spent a time with Tim at MIT, a pose emerged which reflected Tim’s current itinerant working life attending international conferences and meetings, where he defends in person the future freedom of the web. I liked the idea that the creator of the most ethereal of inventions would be celebrated with the most solid of portraits. By carefully calculating a two-thirds scale and with a wonderfully wrought painted finish to the bronze cast, Sean Henry has created a sympathetic and very affecting portrait.

Sir Tim Berners Lee by Sean Henry, painted bronze, 2015 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Tim Berners Lee by Sean Henry, painted bronze, 2015
© National Portrait Gallery, London

In any new public portrait there is potential tension between the hopes of the individual and the expectations of the commissioning institution. Likeness is one central matter, but equally the question of how to represent achievement as much as (or even more than) personality or character. As public images, these commissioned works cannot be caricatures; though positive in general approach, they must not be bland. Thomas Carlyle had (arguing in the 1840s in effect for the creation of a national portrait collection) famously described portraits as ‘a lighted candle by which biographies could for the first time be read’. This sounds somewhat illustrational, and I knew I wanted works which would, in their very different forms, reach out to the public and demand attention, even if sometimes traditional in style, conventional in pose or small in scale.

Perhaps more than anything I learned that the best results came from establishing a good relationship between sitter and artist, and this meant that the Gallery, at the right point, should back off and leave them to work together. If the creative communication was right then solutions would be found to the day-to-day portrait questions of symbolism, dress or pose.

* * * * * *

After commissioning portraits of so many others it should not have felt difficult to submit for my own. Through those years as Director, I took it as my privilege to turn away anyone who wanted me to sit. All such requests were politely declined, although a few photographic portraits were needed for promotional purposes, or were taken as part of my relationship with a particular artist.

By tradition, the Portrait Gallery seeks a portrait of an outgoing director. So, once the Trustees had set a commission, I found myself in June 2015 feeling somewhat nervous as I traveled to New York. A portrait would make me face the conjunction of a public definition of self with a sense of mortality (in an irreversible process). After stepping down as Director, I had discussed with Sarah Howgate what kind of work might be of most interest for the Gallery’s Collection, and we soon came to the view that selecting an artist who might not otherwise be represented was a priority. Various candidates emerged, but the American artist, Chuck Close (who had created a wonderful large-scale painting for the SELF-PORTRAIT exhibition of 2005), was top of the list. I was delighted and flattered when he said he was interested.

This meant considering what so many about-to-be-portrayed individuals have mused on. What should one wear? A suit and tie? Or something more informal? This portrait would depict me as a director, and therefore I decided on a lightweight dark blue Paul Smith suit, and with it the unusual and striking Paul Smith tie given to me by senior colleagues as part of generous farewell gifts in early 2015. And my hair would need trimming.

It was hard to avoid the slightly fatal sense of ‘before and after’ as I arrived for the Friday morning appointment in Tribeca. Chuck was just arriving in his Mercedes transit van converted for his electric wheelchair and was using a new lightweight metal ramp. This was to get up the stairs into John Reuter’s ‘large format’ 20×24 Polaroid camera studio, where he works with two colleagues, and has collaborated with Close over many years. The huge wooden camera front, lens and bellows dominated the studio space; the camera being one of only five such large-format devices ever built (in 1976), and still working. Lights, wires and flats were crammed in around it.

I had not met with Chuck since the SELF-PORTRAIT exhibition, but he was warm and welcoming. He soon asked what was wanted. Although I knew I was submitting to him as an artist, I said I thought the Trustees wanted two things: to obtain a proper portrait of me, as a director of twelve years, and to acquire a portrait of his for the Collection. Possibly in reverse order.

So I perched on the aluminium stool, with the large lens alarmingly close, banks of bright lights on each side, and associate Myrna nearby, ready to offer a paper towel to lessen the moistening on my face. She was operating the front part of the camera, including the shutter; the bellows framed with rods and stays, with wheels and cogs for positioning. The moment of exposure combines a blast of light from each side of the camera. Not really a shock, but startling even when you know it is coming. I was over-self-conscious about my appearance, and aware that if I became a Chuck Close Polaroid then every hair and pockmark might end up showing. And I was equally conscious of my expression. Should I be smiling? With my mouth open or closed? How could I not look stiff and get some degree of warmth into my expression?

With Chuck Close in John Reuter’s 20×24 Polaroid camera studio in New York, 2015

With Chuck Close in John Reuter’s 20×24 Polaroid camera studio in New York, 2015

After several colour shots, Chuck tried a couple of black and white Polaroids. He clearly knew exactly when he had the right image to work from, and after several hours together we stopped. Chuck said nothing about what he thought of the images, except to suggest passingly that I might become a watercolour portrait. He would think about it.

In early 2016 it emerged that a watercolour portrait on paper had indeed been delivered to the Gallery. I visited the Conservation Studio in March and saw the work laid out on an examination table. Looking down and close, one’s eye was caught by the abstract squares of paint, each a layered set of complex washes, row upon row, marching up the sheet of paper. Each square is created through Chuck’s deployment of thousands of his watercolour ‘strokes’ held in computer memory. Once all the squares are set, the unique image is rendered by the computer, onto the large sheet of watercolour paper. The person depicted might happily be irrelevant. But then the portrait was lifted up … and there I was! Smiling a little bit and, despite the deep-set eyes and glasses, there was a real sense of me looking back out. Flecked here and there with Chuck’s subtle choice of colours, it is a work as much about portraiture as about me. I went away from the Gallery feeling both pleased and humbled that Chuck had responded so magnificently to the Gallery’s invitation. I hoped I had played my part.


Sandy Nairne by Chuck Close, archival pigment print on paper, 2016