The news that a recently commissioned portrait of J K Rowling by Stuart Pearson Wright (whose previous subjects include Prince Philip, John Hurt and Michael Gambon) is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery will no doubt inspire many young Harry Potter fans to visit this ‘national pantheon’. For some it will undoubtedly be their first experience of portraiture. ‘Portraiture is one of the grandest and greatest genres of painting and children should be given it in wholly undiluted form,’ says Brian Sewell. But how wholly undiluted is Pearson Wright’s portrait of Rowling? Brian Sewell discusses.
Stuart Pearson Wright is a painter of such eccentricity, though genuine enough in his student days, as to now seem too contrived, too cultivated, too deliberate. He is now thirty and the winner of two awards, for portraiture and travel, sponsored by BP and presented at the National Portrait Gallery, and of the Garrick Club’s prize for theatrical portraits. He has gained some notoriety through an open attack on the policies of Sir Nicholas Serota at the various stations of the Tate Gallery, but has since learned the unwisdom of biting a hand that might one day feed him; even so, he still occasionally rewards a press that thinks him worth provoking into comment. The National Portrait Gallery has become his most prominent patron and keeps him in the news, currently with a portrait of J K Rowling commissioned for their permanent collection. He has some reputation among other public bodies – the British Academy and the Royal Society of Arts the most eminent so far – but only as a painter of portraits; Lord Archer, before he fell from grace, was a fervent and generous supporter; and I, while he was still a student and in his immediately post-student years, gave him considerable encouragement.
At the Slade School, in recent years as much the slave of foolish fashion as all the other state art schools, its reputation for sound teaching and traditional practice abandoned as long ago as the days of Derek Jarman, Pearson Wright was deeply unhappy. He knew what he wanted from the teachers there, but they were unwilling or incapable of giving it; he felt despised, rejected and very much alone. His interests in early Netherlandish painting, Durer, Caravaggio and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were scorned; no one could explain their techniques and materials, and he floundered. He considered leaving the Slade, but I advised him to complete his years there, ignore the scorn and taunts, use the place as a studio and care nothing for the degree that he might or might not get when his course came to an end. This he did and his obstinacy was vindicated with his winning the first of his National Portrait Gallery prizes in 1998.
The experience gave him strength but scarred him too. His determination to be different made him resilient to advice. No one wanted him in his formative stages to be less eccentric, to be more ordinary, but with any quirky painter there is the risk of becoming famous, familiar and wearisome only for what eventually developed into tedious and vexatious mannerisms. Pearson Wright is now known primarily, not as a potential Reynolds of our day, but as a portrait painter who depends on gloomy and disconsolate caricature, on physical distortion and variable perspective, of which the combination is inevitably disturbing. Pleasure, unless of the wryest kind, is not to be had from any of his paintings, nor are insight, depth, warmth and the understanding that sometimes develops between a portrait painter and his sitter. Pearson Wright has become a painter who invariably imposes his style on his subject and cares not a hoot for any deeper truth than recogniseability.
A wilful excursion into the third dimension
His portrait of J K Rowling is a case in point. It is a toy, a thing of Victorian cardboard theatres, tuppence coloured, first cousin to the pop-up illustrations of children’s books in my young day, scale and perspective distorted, the transitory illusion shattered by inconsistencies and, in this case, by the shoddiness of finish and detail. It is all very well to claim the influence of the boxes of Joseph Cornell*, but Cornell’s work is exquisitely conceived and executed and is concerned neither with representation nor illusion; it is all very well to admit the influence of the toy theatre, but that is a three-dimensional amusement for a child, not the document or evocation of a face suddenly important enough to join the national pantheon of iconography.
Pearson Wright’s wilful excursion into the third dimension could be excused were it intended for a waxworks or an amusement arcade at the end of Brighton Pier, but as portraiture it insults the National Portrait Gallery and patronises the children who may come to see it. Portraiture is one of the grandest and greatest genres of painting (as well as, too frequently, the dullest) and children should be given it in wholly undiluted form. I have no doubt that Pearson Wright thought this commission might bring his work to a new audience of children, but it was not for him to make portraiture more ‘accessible’ – that weasel word – by putting it in a light-box and, in his own words, ‘being a kind of director, bringing together a set design, actors and props and then lighting the whole thing.’
Of course the Establishment, confronted by this wretched object, closed ranks; the Director of the National Portrait Gallery proclaimed it ‘captivating with more than a touch of magic…delicacy and charm’; the director of BP’s support for the arts told us that it is a ‘superb example’ of the commissioned portraiture that is the consequence of their sponsorship; and the press release through which both hoped to influence response gushed praise for the portrait’s echoes of Alice in Wonderland and its ‘appropriately imaginative’ acknowledgement of the parallel world of Rowling’s Potter stories. That Rowling’s face is competently, though flatteringly, realised, I wholeheartedly agree; that the eggs represent her children I do not dispute (not exactly a brilliant new idea), but that any part of the portrait is improved by the cut-out presentation is preposterous – the device does not even help in the compression and distortion of space that is so dominant an element in Pearson Wright’s previous paintings.
I suspect that Pearson Wright is at a crisis point in his career. Though much favoured by the National Portrait Gallery, it seems that no dealer of national or international reputation supports him or trades in his work, and without that commercial interest and the wider exposure that it gives, his small reputation may begin to fade. He surely cannot depend on winning yet more prizes to keep him in the public eye, and eccentricity, deliberate difference and aesthetic affront are not enough.
Brian Sewell is the art critic of the Evening Standard.
* Joseph Cornell (1903-1973) was an American artist who would file relics of the past from New York junk shops into boxes.
The National Portrait Gallery (www.npg.org.uk) is open daily from 10.00am to 6.00pm with late night opening until 9.00pm on Thursday and Friday.