Cherie Blair, and the art of the nude

The sale of a 30-year-old portrait of the ex-PM's wife, naked, made us gasp. But, asks Katy Guest, why are we so hung up about flesh?
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The Independent Culture

Pay attention, and no sniggering at the back. This is a portrait of Cherie Booth, nude, painted by her friend Euan Uglow when she was only 22. It is now on show at the Browse & Darby gallery in Mayfair, with a price tag of £600,000.

Rumour has it that she and her husband Tony Blair have bought a sketch that is being exhibited alongside the painting, and which cost £4,000. But did they buy it because they are proud of the image? Or perhaps because they are ashamed?

It's not unusual for a student to do a little life modelling to make ends meet. But what happens when that student goes on to marry a man who becomes Prime Minister and interest in your naked form reaches (no disrespect to Mrs B) unnatural heights?

Why, indeed, is there such prurience about nudity in this country? Below we talk to six people who have reason to understand that prurience better than most.

Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, featuring Sue Tilley, became the most expensive painting by a living artist when it was sold for £17.2m last year.

"It feels a bit weird, to be honest. It never really crossed my mind when I sat for it that I would be on the front of every paper. I have always loved the painting, though. I think it's one of his best. Not that I'm vain.

"I find it liberating, actually. When I go out and I feel a bit fat I think, 'Well, everybody's seen me naked anyway'. It's not a very flattering picture, but that's a bonus. When people see me in the flesh, they say, 'You're much better looking'.

"I don't understand why people say that nudity is rude. Because we're all naked really, aren't we? People at work say, 'Aren't you embarrassed?' I say, 'No, why should I be?' In this country we're funny about nudity, but America is worse. All that excitement on the telly when Janet Jackson's nipple came out. We've all got them!"

The artist Stuart Semple has often worked with life models, especially for his new exhibition "Everlasting Nothing Less", at the Anna Kustera Gallery, New York, from 16 May-20 June.

"The most important thing about a life model is that she's got to be patient. They should be as natural and as comfortable with themselves as possible. It's quite often students who become life models – it pays quite well at £12 an hour. They're often artists themselves, or friends of artists. I don't think that people think far ahead enough to worry about having an image of themselves hanging around for posterity.

"Usually the model is happy with the picture, but if you do something really freaky with it they might kick off. Sometimes it looks a bit weird and you don't want to show them.

"I tend to find models from agencies. My partner has informed the look of a lot of my work; she came round to model for me and never left. Surprisingly, the young, thin models are a lot less interesting to look at. Older and fatter people with tattoos and piercings are a lot more so."

Keeley Hazell, a page three model, has just launched a modelling agency, Muse Management UK.

"You've definitely got to be comfortable in your own skin. I found it quite easy from the beginning. It didn't feel like I was taking my clothes off in front of lots of strangers; it was just like home. In The Sun it's always a team of women.

"It's a pretty strange feeling to see someone looking at a picture of you naked. I have seen it once, on a train. You're playing a character to a certain extent, so you think, 'That's me!' But it's not.

"When I started at 18, I thought people accepted nudity in this day and age. Four years later, I think some do have an issue with it. I ask people why they disapprove, but I never get a simple answer. But people – even women – like to see women naked. If I saw a picture of a naked man I'd think, 'Eew, that's disgusting!'

"It should be a great thing to look back on, 30 years later, and think, 'Didn't I look fabulous?' Cherie Blair obviously expressed herself through this painting, and if it were me I'd look at it now and think, 'Wow!'"

Alex Proud is the owner of Proud Galleries, where Rankin's "Female Nudes" and "Male Nudes" were exhibited in 1999 and 2001.

"The unusual thing about those shows was that members of the public actually volunteered to pose nude. And I think a big reason for a lot of people was a form of overcompensating for being English. It was saying, 'I'm not prudish'. There is a huge difference between our attitudes and those of Europeans. I think the Rankin 'Nudes' show would have aroused very little press interest in Europe. At the Rankin show, most of the people in the photos turned up with family and friends. And believe me, you have never experienced an uncomfortable conversation until you've talked to somebody's parents in front of a picture of them, legs splayed and naked. I did what all English people do and drank a bottle of wine."

Lizy Carey modelled for the artist Samuel Durkin ( www.arts-fine.co.uk).

"I met Sam at a club and he told me he was a painter and looking for life models. I'd never done any modelling before and I'm not somebody who's naturally confident about my body. But my boyfriend's 21st was coming up and I thought it would be a nice present. Sam did several paintings and I kept one. I didn't want to get older and regret not doing it. It's really nice to have something that will be for ever, it's sort of immortalising. I like to think that I'll look back on it and it will boost my confidence."

Zena Snowdon-Perkins and her husband run Mighty Aphrodite, an agency specialising in "erotic and boudoir photography".

"The first photos I had taken were primarily to use as portfolio shots. Then I hit 40 and started thinking about it. A lot of our clients want pictures taken to mark a milestone, to capture this image for posterity. We'd been helping all these women to feel good about themselves, and I thought, 'I should do this'. I hate having my photo taken. But I suppose it was easier for me as my husband was taking the photos, and he was really supportive. Our clients from the Continent definitely have less of a prudish attitude to nudity. I don't know what it is about the British psyche that makes us so nervous and scared of our bodies. As you open our front door, the first thing you see is my bum in fishnets. My son, who's 12, said, 'What if I have my mates round?' I said, 'Well, you don't have to tell them it's me'. But he does. He's grown up not being fazed by that."

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