The Sitter's Tale: Baroness Blackstone

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: the academic and politician particularly enjoyed looking at the bricks
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The Independent Culture
I got a phone call from the director of the National Portrait Gallery, who asked if I would agree to be painted. I was really surprised; I thought, why do you want a painting of me? I said, "I suppose you'll put it in the basement," and he said, "Of course we won't." I was very flattered, but it suddenly occurred to me that Annabel Cullen might not want to paint me: it would have been a pretty horrible prize to paint somebody you didn't have empathy with. I said I'd do it if they asked her first. Then she got in touch with me.

We had about six sittings of two hours or more. Annabel was extremely meticulous and worked quite slowly. She liked to work with her sitter in front of her, rather than doing sketches and going away. She wanted me sitting in a chair in a natural position. We did it in a top-floor room because she was very clear about the light she wanted, and she had views about what she wanted me to wear: something simple without a collar, not a garish colour. I said, "You'd better come and look at my clothes cupboard" and she came to choose something.

For the sittings, I sat looking at the brickwork of the house opposite. I became familiar with every bit of the mortar between the bricks, and the roof and the chimneys. I did little architectural sketches in my mind. I am not very good at thinking without a piece of paper and a pen in front of me but it was good for me in a way. It forced me to relax and do nothing.

I liked the result very much: I saw it as it slowly grew over the weeks. It shows a reflective and contemplative side of me, rather than the activity- oriented side. One or two people said they didn't think I looked animated enough, but I didn't agree. I think the stance and the expression on my face is quite subdued and understated, which is interesting. After this, I had another portrait painted, by Peter Edwards, for Birkbeck College. It's a somewhat more forceful rendering of my personality and I'm wearing a red dress. Different artists see different sides of you. I would like to think that in a self-portrait I could show the humorous side; that there was a smile, in my eyes, or somewhere, in there.

Annabel Cullen's 1991 portrait of Baroness Blackstone hangs in the NPG, London WC2 (0171 306 0055)

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