How Freud, Yeo Hung Me on National Portrait Gallery Wall

This is becoming a habit, or at least an annual event. Another year, and once more I find myself hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

This has nothing to do with fame or achievement on my own part, I hasten to say. It’s just that I appear to have become a regular subject for artists, just like apples in a bowl or a fish on a plate. Or, to put it differently, being painted is the natural result of knowing painters.

“Man With a Blue Scarf,” a picture of me by Lucian Freud, was in the exhibition of his work last year at the London gallery. This time I’m in “Jonathan Yeo Portraits,” in Rooms 40 and 41 until Jan. 5, 2014.

In this display I’ll be keeping company -- visually speaking -- with a gaggle of theatrical, media and art-world notables including Sienna Miller, Grayson Perry, Rupert Murdoch, Damien Hirst, Michael Parkinson and Kevin Spacey.

As that list suggests, Yeo’s subjects are often extremely well-known. He is perhaps the closest we now have in London to a society portrait painter.

However, society has morphed a little since the days of Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent.

Yeo, 42, has tended to paint not so much an aristocracy as the celeb-ocracy that dominates party guest lists and newspaper headlines in the contemporary world. He also has an impish, not to say downright subversive side.

A few years ago he produced a series of collage-pictures and portraits, in one of which President George W. Bush was featured.

Porn Pictures

From a distance, these looked like paintings executed in chunky strokes of varying tones of pink, beige and grey. Only when you peered closer did it become obvious that they were actually made (with great skill) by gluing together details culled from hard-core pornographic magazines.

This was not, I am glad to say, the medium in which he decided to make his picture of me. The portrait came about quite casually. I was in Yeo’s West London studio one afternoon this summer, chatting and drinking tea, when he unexpectedly announced he would like to paint me, pulled out a canvas and set to with oils and brushes.

His approach made an interesting contrast with that of Freud. For one thing, Yeo painted approximately 30 times faster.

“Man with a Blue Scarf” took some 130 hours of sitting to complete; Yeo’s was just about done in three sessions of two hours or so each. Painters vary a great deal in speed. Van Gogh once claimed to have produced a magnificent depiction of his ex-landlady in 45 minutes.

Painless Portraits

One quality, though, that portrait painters need to have is charm. Poor Vincent was lacking there, which was one reason why he found it so difficult to persuade anyone to sit for him.

Like a good doctor or dentist, the painter of people’s faces tries to put the subject at ease and render the process as painless as possible. Yeo kept up a stream of entertaining conversation except when, at moments of furious activity, he was holding a spare paint-brush with his teeth.

The result is a relaxed and cheerful version of myself and -- I am told by those who know me -- a good likeness.

A painted portrait is the record of an encounter between two human beings, one person’s appearance and personality filtered through the eyes and mind of another.

That’s its enduring fascination, and the reason it’s pleasing that younger artists such as Yeo are keeping it alive and flourishing in the 21st century.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater, Robert Heller on rock and Elin McCoy on wine.

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