People. Like snowflakes, no two are alike, though if you were to browse the many portraits on Art UK you might be forgiven for thinking that most humans are of a particular ilk (namely white, male and either balding or bewigged). Of course, the national collection of public art is a reflection of history, and as such is skewed toward portraits of leaders and dignitaries from the last several hundred years. This, of course, can be useful, if your great-aunt Elsa was Mayor of Southwold and you want to see what she looked like in her ceremonial garb, or if you are distantly related to Bulstrode Whitelocke, and are trying to decide if you have the inherited bone structure to pull off a ruff or goatee. However all sorts of people appear in the UK’s art collection, personalities as varied as British histories and customs.
Most of us are experts when it comes to looking at faces. Maybe this means that portraitists are the most gifted copyists of nature: most people can identify when a painting of a person is not-quite-right, or can spot subtle hints of an expression, even if they don't know exactly why – perhaps the eyes of a cherub are a little far apart, or a particular angle of the eyebrows make Elizabeth II look pretty narked.
Fortunately most of the UK’s portraits are well executed and refined, and can give a unique insight into costumes of the day, or the nature of a character long departed. However, this story is not going to dwell on any of that stuff. Leave your preconceptions at the door* as we delve into a selection of Art UK’s weird and wonderful portraits…
Beverley Nichols was certainly mad on cats, and gardening, so it is right that a cat in a garden should be dreaming of Beverley Nichols (or is Nichols dreaming of the cat and garden)? Mr Nichols claimed he did not feel ‘easy in the company of any cat that walked around the house with a saintly expression’. Inspecting the face of this cat, I see only confusion. Likely due to the hallucinatory appearance of a disembodied writer’s head floating in the branches of a tree.
This man is so proud of his living mop that he made it sit on his lap for a portrait. Does the envelope actually contain a treat (e.g. small bit of sausage) to coerce the pup into sitting still? The expression on the tiny bit of face that is poking out under the dog-locks implies no, it’s just paper.
If I ever find myself near Lifton, Devon with an afternoon to spare I will absolutely make a pilgrimage to The Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre. To make it a perfect day, I would pay tribute to the work of Paul Wright, and dress as Tina Turner in this fabulous panel, created to decorate John Walter Shaw's 'Easyrider'. (I was going to pick George Michael for a costume but noticed it looks like he’s not got any shoes on. Maybe the ‘Easyrider’ is a very turbulent ride and it’s best to go on it in socks.)
Michael Howard said that sitting for a portrait is ‘a terrifying experience’ but also said that for this one, the artist made him feel relaxed and comfortable, albeit the ‘rather strange circumstances’. Well. Howard’s pose certainly conveys these conflicted and awkward feelings.
(Another contender for a man-of-authority power pose: Kenneth Hilton. Such incredible hair. I would trade a little finger for hair that thick and lustrous. Head-hair, not face-hair, just to be clear.)
Kudos to this unknown woman, fiercely working sumptuous silk that fabulously offsets their five-o-clock shadow. The delicate grip on the jasmine flower and knowing smile bring the whole look together. In the words of RuPaul, ‘shantay, you stay’. (This person is my hero. But who are they? Propose a discussion on Art Detective, if you have any idea…)
Ooh, ah, Cantona, ooh ah thank-you-for-loaning-this-masterpiece-to-Manchester’s-National-Football-Museum.
Holy cow, Mrs Bennett: that is one lively complexion. (But don't worry people, she gets better!) Wellcome Library – home to all things gorily fascinating – have a whole set of these incredible paintings depicting nineteenth-century Leeds gentlefolk with grievous illnesses, though sadly Mrs Bennett is the only person in the set to be painted again after being cured.
The work of D. Robert Harman is charming: the portraits are all painted in soft pastel colours, and the poses simple and natural. Windsor & Royal Borough Museum is lucky enough to have eight of them. Art UK’s copyright team have scoured the internet for this artist or his estate, but their efforts have been fruitless. If you know anything, do get in touch. I would like to ask if Mr Harman made Mr Tozer look like a fleshy egg because they were enemies, as the other portraits make everyone else look quite distinguished.
These two serious sisters in Dundee’s collection have exactly the same face as our ex-Head of Production, Daniel. Who now is a genius doctor living in Scotland, presumably to be closer to his ancestral roots. I hope the Carmichael clan accepts him as a long-lost family member.
I think I had a nightmare about the man in this painting once. Put your face up to the screen and stare into his eyes for a minute or two, you’ll see what I mean. Or just scroll past this bit, quickly, before he traps your immortal soul in his enthusiastically presented hat.
That vacant stare represents how most of us feel after the festive season. No. More. Cheese. Oh go on, just a bit then. And pass the Quality Street.
This painting really captures the subject; you can tell who it’s supposed to be straight away. Here is our own Prince of Wales out-and-about, perhaps on one of the estates, with a jaunty sprig of flowers on his collar. Whilst his wavy chestnut hair is to die for, he’s not doing a very good job of spotting wildlife through his binoculars. Look out, Charles, a flock of well-executed birds have flown off behind you.
A. H. Laine, where have you been all my life, and will you agree to be my official portraitist? You have proven that Michael Jackson was alive and well in 1922, working as a soldier of the Royal Guernsey Militia, nonchalantly leaning on a horse. So much going on here: did the soldier miss the boat? Who left that anchor in the road? A person could trip over such a thing (whilst moonwalking along the promenade).
Extra bonus artwork!
It’s not really weird that the young Sean Connery’s near-naked body was captured for always in oil paint, but it is wonderful. As are his underwear. So his portrait is going on end of this list.
Jade King, Art UK Head of Editorial
This story idea was the winning contender of a Twitter poll, a triumphant result over close second ‘strange artist pseudonyms’, with ‘dogs vs cats on Art UK’ and ‘naïve art’ coming joint-last. We'd love to hear your own ideas: tweet what you'd like to read about on Art UK @artukdotorg.
*Note from the author: This story contains a personal selection of my favourite portraits, and no disrespect whatsoever is meant to any sitters, collections or artists. These sorts of eccentric and unique artworks are the reason I get up in the morning to work at the Art UK offices. After all, there are over 300 paintings by or associated with Thomas Gainsborough on Art UK, but there is only one Poodlemania.