The Sitter's Tale: Elvis Costello

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: the musician and songwriter thought he must have died
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The Independent Culture
A dam Birtwistle is a good friend of the Brodsky Quartet, and they suggested that he should do a painting of me. He'd already done them; the paintings hang in their studio in Bermondsey.

The portrait was done a few years ago, so when I was told the National Portrait Gallery had acquired it, I had to check I wasn't dead - I thought you had to be dead to be in there. Being told I was in the NPG was a real surprise. It's like being on a stamp, or in the dictionary. I'm in the Collins new edition - under C. Who makes a decision like that? It really does seem odd.

I only know Adam through doing the picture - he cast his eye over me, and photographed me. I'm used to the process of being photographed, but being examined by a painter was different. I've worked with quite a few artistic photographers, who did different things, so this felt at first much like a photographic session. He took photographs - he may also have sketched me when I wasn't looking.

In the Northern Renaissance people who had their portrait painted had their garb elaborated on - not only are you never sure what a painter sees, but you have no idea what you will come back as. I just sat for him in the clothes I would have worn anyway on that day. It was painted in the autumn, and I had a long scarf on.

He got into the dark part of my soul. He has a very strong style. With a portrait, it's always a worry that it looks inside you - while I was there I had no idea whether he was looking at the inside of me, or at the outside.

Another interesting thing - this painting is not like those portraits of the Queen, commissioned directly to hang in the NPG. This was done without any pressure - someone must have seen it in a gallery or something, as it was bought by the National Portrait Gallery only recently.

Whether it looks like me or not doesn't matter - it's how someone sees you. Portraits this century don't have to be realistic, but they reveal things about both the sitter and the painter.

Adam Birtwistle's 1996 portrait of Elvis Costello goes on show from Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055).

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