Ishbel Myerscough, painter: 'Mum said why don't you use the upstairs. It is about the work, not where you are'

Karen Wright visits the artist at her studio in her family house in Holloway, north London

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The Independent Culture

Ishbel Myerscough has moved her studio back into her family house in Holloway, north London, where she grew up as the youngest of three daughters. Her father studied around the corner at the local school where her three children now go.

She floats up the several flights to her high eyrie under the eaves, smocked and bare-footed. I settle on her sitter's sofa, looking at several works in progress both on her easel and leaning against walls. Close-ups of body parts, cropped and tight, hold my eye; they're not photographic – pure paint representations – but clearly closely observed.

Meyerscough was born in 1968 in London and attended the Glasgow School of Art and the Slade. She won the BP Portrait Award in 1995 while still at the Slade, giving her enough of a reputation to forge a relationship with a London gallery. "I was successful, to be able to do that and not have another job." But the art world of today is another thing, she agrees. "There are so many things that can make you bitter and twisted and mad."

In college in Glasgow she met painter Chantal Joffe and they became best friends, painting each other and generally hanging out. A result is a current show at the National Portrait Gallery, a refreshing reminder to visitors that contemporary portraiture can be more than stuffy photorealist works of men in power suits. The two painters have painted themselves and each other bravely, with and without children, often with unflattering scrutiny.

Meyerscough's recent portrait of a veteran, commissioned by Prince Charles, portrays her subject as strong and vulnerable but above all proud. (He was not well and died shortly after he sat for her.) It is testimony as a portrait that it is more than merely a likeness.

Meyerscough teaches at the Royal Drawing School once a week. I can imagine her students loving her or equally not understanding her as they seek answers. "I can't teach them how to be an artist; I can show them how to look but not how I do it."

When I ask her about returning her studio to her childhood home, she says, "I was working in these studios and they were cold and damp. Mum said why don't you use the upstairs. It is about the work, not where you are." Having worked in some glamorous spots around the world, Meyerscough's bare feet are firmly planted on the ground – she says she still takes the bus home with her lawyer husband and kids to the Angel. "I need to be a bus ride away from the work."

Friendship Portraits: Chantal Joffe and Ishbel Myerscough continues at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020 7306 0055) to 28 September

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