Dead birds, rats, snakes, lipstick and a Manolo Blahnik heel

Gallery unveils a 'gothic' portrait of Isabella Blow

A cacophony of stuffed animals spot-lit onto a wall to form a portrait silhouette of the late fashion icon Isabella Blow has been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.

The unusual portrait made of 15 taxidermy animals (including birds, a rat and a snake), wood and fake moss, together with a heel from one of Blow’s own Manolo Blahnik shoes and her trademark lipstick, is a vivid combination of sculpture, installation and light projection.

In the resulting silhouette of a head, Isabella Blow appears to be wearing one of the extraordinary hats designed for her by Phillip Treacy, which often featured taxidermy. The artists were fascinated by what they saw as Blow’s gothic quality and chose to depict her head as though on a stake, incorporating a raven and the species of rat associated with the Black Death.

The work has been donated to the Gallery by the estate of Isabella Blow, who died in 2007, and the artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster who created it from life in 2002. The result of their friendship with Isabella Blow, this is the only portrait by the artists of a person other than themselves.

‘The portrait encourages us to reflect simultaneously on beauty and death,’ says Rosie Broadley, Associate Curator of Contemporary Collections, National Portrait Gallery, London, ‘which embody Blow’s own complex preoccupations.’

During their 15-year partnership, artists Tim Noble (b.1966, Stroud) and Sue Webster (b.1967, Leicester) have produced works that address issues of identity, self-representation and taboo. They are best known for their silhouette self-portraits, where a simple light source transforms a seemingly chaotic assemblage of ordinary objects into a perfect shadow portrait. Works include The Undesirables, 2000 a landscape of household rubbish on which the silhouetted artists appear to sit, contemplating a sunset.

As a journalist, stylist and muse, Isabella Blow (1958-2007) was a leading figure in the development of British fashion in the 1990s and 2000s. She is credited with discovering and promoting the careers of important British designers including Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, the world’s leading milliner Philip Treacy, and the photographer Juergen Teller.

Working for Vogue (US and UK), Tatler and The Sunday Times Style magazine, Blow’s own flamboyant style made her a muse for several designers. In 1998 her husband Detmar Blow co-founded the contemporary art gallery Modern Art with Stuart Shave, representing young artists including Noble and Webster, who made this portrait. Blow created many iconic fashion shoots which fused fashion with contemporary art.

Artist Sue Webster says: ‘Any portrait of Issy should not be made of sugar and spice and all things nice, but of the darker stuff of life that suited her more Gothic Image. Issy was a great friend of both Tim and myself, she was one of the most enigmatic, powerful and funniest women I have ever met.’