Daphne Todd: Portrait commissions, Messum's, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's often said that the love affair with conceptualism over the past 20 years has damaged the status of figurative painting. It would be more precise to say that portraiture has been a casualty. While it is widely practised and exhibited, its leading lights have not become household names in the way that the ageing young turks of Britart did.

Daphne Todd was the first woman to become president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. She is much admired by her peers and students of portraiture, but despite numerous awards and an OBE, has been insufficiently known outside that world. A recent book about her and her techniques helped remedy that, and this small show of her recent work demonstrates how she brings a soulfulness and haunting quality to portrait painting.

Take her picture of Lady Laing, wife of the industrialist. This was done while Lady Laing's husband was seriously ill, and anxiety is etched into the refined, aristocratic face. It slightly hurts to look at it.

Ms Todd has in recent years painted many of the great and good, for example Lord Armstrong of Ilminster – he who popularised the phrase "economical with the truth" – but the former Cabinet Secretary gives an assured confidence in his portrait. She has also painted many of the great and good of the arts, among them Sir Tom Stoppard, Spike Milligan, Dame Janet Baker and Sir Christopher Ondaatje.

And here I should declare an interest. For along with the great and the good of the cultural world is one of the not so great and only intermittently good – myself. As someone who has sat for the artist, I can testify to the silent but searching interrogations in her gaze every few minutes before she applies paint to canvas, and the desire to bring to that canvas your innermost thoughts and anxieties.

It has been said of Daphne Todd that she explores the landscape of a face in the same way she examines the face of a landscape. Certainly she can find a resonance between human emotion and a still life. In this exhibition a touching portrait of isolation entitled Girl Inside is hung next to her picture of a desolate flower, A Lily Alone. I found myself looking from one to the other and back again, unsure which to be more concerned for, human or plant.

A small but disquieting show.