‘Lady Agnew of Locknaw’ by John Singer Sargent
I was invited to the press events at the D&D Building’s Fall Market last year, to see the new products each showroom had to offer, and to hear lectures from members of our community. Michael Boodro, the Editor of Elle Decor, gave a presentation about what the interior designers, polled by his magazine, considered to be the best and most sought after luxury products and services this year.
A month later, I was invited to the press preview of Holiday House, Iris Danker’s annual Breast Cancer Research fundraiser. Just inside the vestibule of the house was a grand scale portrait of Evelyn Lauder, that together with Mr. Boodro’s discussion, sparked the idea for this post. What, for this Blog Editor, is the ULTIMATE luxury an interior designer can help his or her client acquire? A commissioned portrait.
Several weeks ago I was introduced to world-renowned portrait painter Sacha Newley (son of actors Joan Collins and Anthony Newley) by our Design Editor Carl Lana. Last week Mr. Newley graciously agreed to meet me for lunch, to talk about the process of capturing a person on canvas. What follows is an excerpt of our spirited conversation, as well as a GREAT list of resources for locating artists.
When did you first realize you were going to be a painter?
I was 19, and in the middle of writing a play. I was convinced I was a poet conceiving some sort of avant grade stage piece. The play turned out to be completely unworkable and brought me to the brink of a nervous breakdown. I had terrible writers block and depression. In a bid to free myself, I went to the art store and bought some acrylic paints and cardboard sheets. I knew I had to continue creating or go mad. As soon as I got home and set up the cardboard against the wall and sat down to paint, something happened. Some ‘open sesame’ moment. My brush touched the painting surface and seemed to move on its own, like I was dancing with an invisible partner on the other side of the picture plane, whirling me around and guiding me. And between us an image was spontaneously made, a large face, rendered in thick strokes of paint, a self-portrait of sorts, but with a wildly expressive and distorted look. I sat back in astonishment and gazed at the painting, which stared right back, equally amazed. It was true magic, and I never looked back. From then on, I was a painter.
I left the limitless world of words behind and concentrated on the one blank square of the canvas. It gave me the limitations my imagination desperately needed to crystallize a vision. And it’s appropriate that my first painting was a face, because from an early age I’d always doodled faces. I was obsessed with them. This was probably due to the fact that I loved my father’s face and observed it with a lingering and learning attention. He was a character actor and performer and had a wonderfully malleable and expressive demeanor. He could telegraph any emotion, any thought, with breathtaking subtlety and nuance. And when he discovered Zen Buddhism in midlife, he turned the lamp of his loving attention on me with added intensity. Zen had taught him to revere the “un-carved block” of “beginner’s mind” – a state of being uncluttered by all the prejudices and opinions of “adult” consciousness. As a child, I presented him with an ideal case of beginners mind, and he asked me many questions about the nature of the world, and about how I saw things. He was interested in my point of view, and this stuck with me, it opened me up and made me aware of some power in me. And it followed that I began to be very interested in this indwelling power in others: how they saw things, how they processed the world around them – all vital preparation for my work as a portraitist; and all grounded in an experience of parental love; which is appropriate, because for me, portraiture is a manifestation of love.
Who’s work as a portraitist do you most admire?
I would have to say, first and foremost, John Singer Sargent. There really is no other painter with a greater facility, a greater élan with the brush, a more breathtaking swagger when it comes to describing the fall of cloth, the vital highlight in a dark ground, the dab of pigment that brings a face to life. It’s his exactitude, his unerring sense of placement. It’s like ballet, like Fred Astaire at the easel, but instead of tapping out a dance, he’s tapping into the architecture of the human self. To recreate a presence with that much acuity and grace, it’s just astonishing to me. That’s what I’m always after in my portraits: that sense of maximum evocation with minimum effort. A sense of labor, of soul-destroying toil and revision, is anathema to me. The portrait must breathe life and joy and engagement with the subject. Because the painting has a memory. It remembers a bad day, even if you paint over it. It’s there in the fibers of the canvas. So I approach every day’s work on a painting like an athlete approaching the playing field, or an actor on the stage. Every moment, every intention must be right, or the work will suffer, the goal will not be achieved, the expressive potential will be thwarted. It’s a form of total honesty, I suppose, total transparency. And Sargent had it in abundance.
Self-Portrait in a Kangol Cap Sacha Newley
Do you have a specific style of depicting your subject? Or do you consider the subject and environment in which your work will hang before you paint?
The style of the painting must always proceed from the subject, from the moment you have secured when standing in front of them, often in their home environment. I try to make myself empty before going to see the subject. I want to have no preconceptions. I want to be like a mirror. I don’t know if the painting will be in oil, or if it will be a pastel, but I might have a feeling. These hunches and intuitions are good to have, but they, too, can be misleading. Only the moment counts, the moment when the subject moves in such a way, looks at you in such a way that their essence is laid bare, without adornment, without censorship. It’s quite beautiful. It’s because they’re feeling comfortable, they’re feeling liked, they’re feeling SEEN. And that’s my guiding belief, that from childhood on up, we all want to be SEEN, we want the world to appreciate what’s inside us.
As a portraitist, I am seeking that moment when the self is abundant enough to make itself known, without fear of judgment. I want to paint that. I want to set it free and enhance it. It’s the nature of this moment that will dictate the size of the painting: is it intimate; is it expansive? The medium: is it carefree and diaphanous favoring pastel (so often the case with children and women) – or is it more textured and shadowed, evocative of character, as is often the case with a man, in which case I will make an oil. And I should add that I’m always unsure and a little anxious. I never go into a new portrait with a feeling of safety, like I know how to do it, because every painting for me is a new departure, a new encounter with the other, and it has to find its own rules and regulations, its own palette and procedural logic. Otherwise, as Sargent said, one is merely a mannerist, and the portrait has no chance of outliving its subject.
Christopher Reeve Oil on Linen 2004 Sacha Newley
In the Permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery as the Smithsonian
What makes a commissioned portrait the ultimate luxury?
The person who commissions a portrait, whether of themselves or of someone dear to them, is saying something very important: I value myself, I value those I love, enough to have them consecrated in this medium, under the gaze of another who I value as well. The whole transaction abounds in human value, and luxuriates in the meaning of being alive and important to one another. In fact, we are losing painted portraiture because, in the welter of our social mediating, we are losing real contact with each other. We are controlling contact through the medium of a computer. The fingertips of God are no longer in real contact with the fingertips of man – as was so memorably visualized by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. History is a progression, our modern world is full of improvements to our standard of living, but we have made enormous sacrifices in value. And these, increasingly, are experienced as luxuries, which may or may not be a good way to see them. To my mind, it’s every human being’s right to be looked at with intense appreciation, the sort active in the painting of a portrait. It’s tantamount to a loving gaze; dare I say it, a godly gaze. Why not expect that? Isn’t that a basic right? But you see the talent isn’t cultivated anymore. It’s no longer considered important, because the camera can do it so easily. But looking at the world – at a face – at a tree – is not the same as painting it, drawing it, recreating it through the medium of your own nerves, your own perception. That is a profound transaction with reality. And yes, it’s become a luxury because it’s so rare. Hopefully, if I have anything to do with it, it will not become extinct.
Once you receive a commission, what’s the process like through to the finished work?
In my experience, the commission is really the by-product of a friendship, of a trust developed between the client and the portraitist. Something of this value and luxury won’t happen unless there is a deep commitment on both sides, and that doesn’t happen without a preliminary investment of time and energy. It takes years, sometimes, for a portrait to happen. All the time it is brewing as a possibility, overtures are being made, limitations and desires are being measured and evaluated. Does this person really want to move ahead? Do they really want to commit to the unknown, to what this transaction will create. What if they don’t like it? A person’s vanity can seize up in these circumstances and convince them that they’re never ready, they’re not thin enough, not relaxed enough, they’re “not in the right place” emotionally. There are often all sorts of defenses that have to be patiently overcome on the way to being SEEN. But once I am through to an actual discussion of “how much and when”, I am already anticipating the mountain of the work itself, because, as I said, there are an infinity of ways up the mountain, and I never take the same way twice. I go to the client. I want to be in their environment. I want to see how it reflects them. I want to use what is there – whether a small statue, a family heirloom, a flower – anything that might be meaningful to them and enhance the moment of the portrait.
If they are interested in the process of being painted, if they want to go the distance with me and feel the happy torture and struggle of keeping it real and alive every day in the studio, then so be it. In the beginning they might find sitting still and looking at a point on the wall tortuous. But inevitably, the sittings end with them saying how much they’ll miss coming! Funny. Because all I require them to do is simply be there in the now. They are totally valuable just sitting in front of me. They don’t have to do anything, prove anything. That can be immensely valuable for some people, even as the Blackberry throbs and buzzes, untouched, beside them. Of course showing the finished portrait is a huge moment and always very stressful for me. I try to relax and tell myself that it doesn’t matter if they don’t LOVE IT, but of course it matters a lot to me. I want to make them beautiful, I want to make them real. But above I want their humanity to shine through. And what amazes me is how people perceive themselves. They see themselves through a prism, through a distorting mirror. They might think they look too “serious” when to my eyes they looked poised and certain. You are dealing with the very fine texture of how people feel about themselves, and it is so easy to go wrong, to miss the exactitude and the balance of what makes them love it. But when I do hit it, and get that reaction, there’s nothing like it. It’s a drug to which I’m hopelessly addicted.
Sir Nigel Hawthorne as mad King George III Oil on Canvas, 1983 Sacha Newley
Of all the portraits you’ve painted, which do you consider as your ‘tour de force’?
You’ll have to allow me to pick one of a man and one of a woman, because for me they’re almost different genres of portraiture. I certainly approach them differently. Even when I’m making a double portrait of a man and woman together, I use different brushes for each. One approach is suggestive and tender; the other, for the man, more forthright and descriptive. I think one of my best male portraits is of Sir Nigel Hawthorne in character as mad King George III. It was painted backstage at the National Theatre in London, during the run of the play. Nigel would come back between scenes and sit for me. What I like about the painting is that I’m depicting an actor IN CHARACTER; there are two layers of reality operating, and they lend the portrait complexity. I also like the way the paint has caught and enhanced the turmoil of the mad king. The gaze is looking in. It’s a very psychological portrait, but I suppose I’m always looking for that. The portrait went on to become the promotional image for the play when it toured America. It achieved widespread exposure, and marked a turning point for me. It’s now in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For my woman, I’ve chosen this small pastel of Annette Tapert.
Annette Tapert Pastel and Conte on Paper, 2008 Sacha Newley
It has the sensitivity I’m after when I’m portraying a woman, a certain elegance and precision in the handling which is almost feminine in itself. The subject, feeling and technique have come together and formed a seamless whole. I can’t imagine the portrait having being done in any other way. That’s when I know I’ve hit it.
Special thanks to Sacha Newley for the insight into his work. You can review his website to view his paintings more extensively, as well as for information on how to contact him for a commission. I’ve done some research, and have found 4 other websites that are all resources for viewing the work of portrait artists, which you’ll want to add to your Evernote files. They include The Portrait Society of America, Portraits, Inc, PortraitArtists.com, and The Portrait Source.