George Melly: New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: The jazz singer talks about his split personality

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The Independent Culture
Maggi Hambling had hankered after doing a portrait of me for the NPG - the director and the committee were keen to have a picture of me so it all came about.

I've known Maggi for years and years. When I was the quizmaster on a TV programme called Gallery, she was one of the team captains. We got very fond of each other. Since then I've bought work by her, a large oil, because I really admire her stuff.

She's very stern - no sloppiness allowed - and I had to go to her studio at 9.30am to sit for the portrait. She lived in Clapham, I was in the Portobello Road, and I used to go over every morning to sit. It took about 10 sittings. I sat for quite a long time, from 9.30 to 1.15 with only a few breaks to stretch myself. Afterwards we would have lunch and drink and a lot of laughs.

It's a remarkable picture, and I am delighted with it. The three figures reveal different sides to me. In the one at the bottom I am in my academic robes - I'm a John Moores University fellow. It looks like it was the easiest to pose for but it was hard to turn my neck like that for so long. The top figure is me dressed as the blues singer Bessie Smith. In fact the body was taken from a photograph of her. Years ago I did dress up as her for an article on people's heroes. I tried to find the photo but couldn't so we used a picture of her in the clothes that I had copied. So it's Bessie Smith's body with my head stuck on top.

The middle figure is me jazz singing. I'm also keen on fishing, and not many people see the tiny feather fly that's on my hat.

So it shows all my interests: academic, fishing, jazz and Bessie Smith, and my emotions - there's a bit of melancholy in me at the bottom, then laughter and fun in the others. I'm a surrealist and am very keen on eyes. I am wearing a ring with an eye on it in the middle portrait, and on my shoes the buttons look like eyes. I love the painting going over the frame - I didn't see it until it was unveiled, and I particularly love the feather. It's very exuberant.

George Melly is a singer, writer and broadcaster. His 1998 portrait by Maggi Hambling hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (0171 306 0055).

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