The Sitter's Tale: Fiona Shaw

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: how an image was created around a poem submitted by the actress
Click to follow
She opened her door and her window,

And the heart and soul came through,

To her right hand came the red one,

To her left hand came the blue.

They set up a noise like crickets,

A chattering wise and sweet ...


A long time ago, David Buckland suggested doing a portrait of me. I didn't know him at all at that point. There were various pictures he wanted to do, and he was initially playing with the notion of doing a triptych, as he wanted to do something different. However, he asked me for a quotation, and I chose Yeats, which I suppose, being Irish, is rather obvious. I suggested "The Cap and Bells" because it is the most simple in a way but the most imaginative of Yeats's poems. It's a fantastic world, the world of pure imagination. I think imagination is terribly undervalued as a tool.

I had no idea what the picture he created in response to the quotation would be like. He suggested I brought evening dresses to his house, including the unpressed white one I am wearing in the portrait. A man came with a hawk and eagle, and I stood against a blue screen. We were shooting at the top of David's house in his studio, and the eagle was initially on a huge perch, being fed mice by the keeper. It took up almost the whole room. It felt very heavy for a start, and I had to wiggle my arm for about 20 seconds to get the bird to take off. So this picture of me is a motion one, showing my forehand tennis pose! I was really in awe of the bird, and was terrified as I wasn't in control. Holding the hawk was like jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute - I wouldn't do it again, even for a close friend. He put the background in later: it is a view from near his house in France. So the eagle is real but the background is superimposed.

David's work is really like painting, not photography. It is theatrical and wonderfully three-dimensional, and his images are all very inventive and different. This picture is David's view of me and the quotation - to me the picture is quite operatic, and David is wonderfully on track stylistically.

I think the bird released the image in a way. It isn't saying anything about the theatre or Ireland or north London; it's just the image of an eagle. I think this work is a marvellous lesson in humility - birds are simply themselves, while we struggle with our own vanity.

Fiona Shaw is an actress. Her portrait is part of `David Buckland: Performances': National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (0171 306 0055) to 23 May.