For the sake of completeness, I feel that I should record that tonight was the night of the formal opening of Catherine’s exhibition by the Duchess of Cornwall; and that seeing my portrait now for the third time, it improves each time I see it and I am beginning to think that it might look like me. I suspect that this may be a standard sitter’s response: that one gradually adapts to someone else’s image of what one looks like. Ivor Braka and I swapped anecdotes about the experience of being painted. I like his portrait. He’s got a good head of hair. He said his housemaster at Oundle had let him grow it long and he’s kept it ever since. The portrait which I didn’t pay attention to last time was the Self-portrait by Catherine herself. It’s unexpectedly self-glamorising:
I’ve at last come face-to-face with my portrait. It is (of course) much better than in reproduction and also better in combination with the gallery of other sitters, where it is quite clear that they are effective and successful interpretations of character, based, as was mine, on ties of friendship and a long process of observation and record:
I hang next door to Hannah Rothschild who I regard as my companion-at-arms through the process because she took as long and was nearly as difficult to complete:
The first sight of my portrait is by j-peg. Catherine has sent me a digital image to inspect. What’s the verdict ? First off, it’s a bit of a shock. She said my brow had been getting higher and higher. But the Mekon ? Then I remember that the sitter is the least good judge of a portrait, being familiar only with the image in the mirror in the morning and photographs, which always lie. It’s as much an interpretation of character as it is a strict likeness. It’s good on the physicality of a head, its three-dimensionality. Besides, it’s quite wrong to judge it without seeing it. The verdict at home is that it’s particularly good on the eyes and eyebrows:
It’s finished ! At least, she says it’s finished. This morning there was more inspection from afar, more pursed lips and slight narrowing of the eyes. Half way through, I was told ‘it’s nearly there’, then that my chin had been resolved, then that there were at least five portraits on top of one another, then, just before time, I was told it was all over and I was released into the outside world. No more sittings. But I still haven’t been allowed to see the final result. I have to wait.
I thought my portrait was finished. It isn’t. I was called back for another sitting yesterday, as has Hannah Rothschild. There was a great deal of inspection of the nearly finished portrait from near, from afar and as seen in the large mirror behind the easel, which enables me nearly to see a reflection of the portrait, but not quite. The back tape round its edge was gradually stripped off. I asked why. She said that she’ll tell me one day. At one point, she applied a large dab of bright yellow pigment which looked dangerous and wholly unnecessary. I had thought that my very severe haircut might be a disadvantage, as had she. It’s not long now that the invisible college of her sitters – the dealer, the gardener, the film director and literary agent, but not the Duchess of Cornwall – will be revealed on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. We might finally all meet.
Here is what the artist looks like from the viewpoint of the sitter:
What is it that is so satisfying about sitting for one’s portrait. Many people will think that it’s simply vanity, the delayed gratification of being depicted for posterity. But it’s more than that. It’s partly being allowed to do nothing, and feeling faintly virtuous in doing nothing. Then, there’s the companionship, the chitchat which accompanies a sitting. Somehow it feels like a collaboration, as if one is party to the act of portraiture by contributing to it not just what one looks like, but one’s past history. Catherine said that it was good that I had been so grumpy one sitting as this would be one strand in the portrait. It’s a composite, not just a snapshot. At least, that’s the theory.
Today was meant to be my last sitting. It’s not clear if it was. It was slightly tense because of the pressure to finish. No gossip. Short breaks. Lots of looking at the picture from a distance and in the mirror. It was too wet to judge and I still haven’t seen it.
Here we are again, bicycling through London, unable to cross Tower Bridge, weaving through Vincent Square to my morning sitting in Whistler-land. Because I was a bit early, I made a brief detour to pay my respects to Tudor House on Cheyne Walk where Swinburne lived with Rossetti. Catherine told me that all the cast of Mike Leigh’s new film about Turner had been required to take drawing lessons along the Thames. She let me take photographs of her studio. First, the bit of wall which I contemplate every sitting:
Next the table behind where she stands, which has a very characteristic mix of family photographs and relics of Indian tours: