Confession: I lived in London for 3 years, yet never stepped foot inside the National Portrait Gallery. I somehow regarded it as the smaller cousin of the imposing National Gallery that overlooked Trafalgar Square, and regrettably overlooked it.
On a recent visit to the city, I decided to right that wrong. I ended up losing myself in the Gallery for nearly 3 hours, looking into countless pairs of revealing eyes (and missing lunch).
I wandered into the BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibition, happily joining the appreciative crowds. To the untrained eye, some paintings are fascinatingly realistic, looking rather like photographs even on close scrutiny. I joined many in standing just inches away from several pieces, marveling at the immense detail of individual eyelashes and a slight curl of the lip.
It was cheering to see countless young children sprawled on the Gallery floor, displaying their brand of endearing, wide-eyed creativity with pencils and paper. Some of these might be exhibiting in the same room someday!
I had a pencil and pad of my own. I was starkly aware that my lined notebook seemed out of place, but it didn’t matter. There were thoughts and words to document.
Instead of being taken by the prize-winning portraits (three of them), I found myself drawn to Leslie Watts‘ Pamela Newel Sellers. The portrait (egg tempera on panel) is of Watts’ partner’s mother, 88, who’s suffered from a stroke affecting the right side of her face. The festive Christmas colours of her shirt collar, the slightly quizzical frown and those old eyes seemed to call out to me. And I knew why.
I don’t say, or sadly even think this often, but I miss my grandmother. She was called home last September after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
She’s the reason why I’m creating the piece I am for Sprouts. Part-kinson’s looks to be a genuine account of how the disease ate away at her physically, emotionally and psychologically. I hope it will be a moving (in both senses of the word) portrait of the resolute woman she was. I want there to be a searing immediacy to the work, for it to be both tender and hard-hitting.
I couldn’t think of the exact words while I was making my rounds in the Gallery, but this was what came to mind:
Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. – Oscar Wilde
Mama is my sitter for this portrait. I just wish I’d seen more of her – I only made it home once a year while living in London, and the deterioration of her condition was always grimly sobering.
But I know (and have to trust) that I’ll be filling in the gaps with memories – both warm and haunting – and stories from my maid and family members, and creativity.