The Sitter's Tale: Dame Janet Baker

Faces from the National Portrait Gallery: the great mezzo-soprano sees the shape of herself to come
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The Independent Culture
The portrait was done during one hot summer when I was at home recovering from an operation. It meant I had time to sit for it, but also that I was never going to look in the best of health. I didn't know Daphne Todd, but she sent me photographs of her work, and I could see it was very strong, that it was the work of someone who knew her own mind. The National Portrait Gallery had said that they wanted to choose who would paint me, and I certainly wasn't going to object. It was a great honour to be asked to sit at all.

Daphne wanted to paint me at my home. She looked around the house for somewhere suitable, and decided in the end that we should do it in the attic of all places, which was not very tidy and not very clean and was absolutely stifling in the heat. She planted me on a chair in a long dress and wanted me to hold the score I was learning at the time - it was some Chausson, as I recall. Any score I was working on I used to carry with me everywhere, and this one was terribly tatty and battered. I thought it would have been better to hold something new, but Daphne wanted a sense of realism.

She told me when she started painting that, "I'm not a painter who flatters", and my heart sank. It wasn't that I wanted to be flattered, but nor did I want to be exaggeratedly unlike myself. The finished painting did come as quite a shock, because it seemed to me that she had painted the person I was destined to become. I don't simply mean that she made me look older, but somehow there was a gravitas that was certainly a part of me but which I had not completely acquired. So in a way my fears were borne out, but then of course we never know what we look like to other people, and I suppose that is one of nature's blessings. A lot of friends said to me, "This doesn't look like you", but it was Daphne's point of view, and in that sense I thought, well fair enough. I think part of the problem was that I had been ill, and so appeared physically weaker than I really was.

This business of having one's portrait painted is really very difficult - when you think of all the portraits the Queen has had done of her, she must have very mixed feelings about them. But however much you might disagree with what your portrait appears to say, if the painter is good then there will be something in it that is true. If you want something to look like you then you can always just go out and have a brilliant photograph taken.

Daphne Todd's 1987 portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055)

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