The Sitter's Tale: Helen Mirren

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: 'It's me and yet not me,' says Britain's most alluring actress

Each year, the winner of the BP Portrait Award is given a list of people that the National Portrait Gallery would accept portraits of, and the artist chooses someone off this list to paint. Ishbel Myerscough very kindly chose me.

I couldn't sit for the portrait in London because I had to be in LA, so they flew her out. I didn't know Ishbel before, but it was fantastic for her, as she got a trip out of the commission. She came to my house and worked there for about nine days. She came every day - usually for about four or five hours at a time. It was quite a lot of work, for both of us.

The timing was good for me because I was preparing for a role, Ayn Rand, an American philosopher. At the time I was preparing for it, and I had quite a lot of research to do. A lot of it was watching tapes, trying to pick up her voice and mannerisms.

Sitting in my library watching TV was Ishbel's suggestion. She said, you can do whatever you want - maybe she wanted that distance, me busy doing something other than just sitting for her. I am wearing what I had on the first day she came. It didn't really matter to me what I wore as it was only a head-and-shoulder portrait.

I did enjoy the experience of sitting. Ishbel was very entertaining - we had lots of conversations, and she told me her life story. She's one of the most beautiful girls I've met - you don't expect this from your portrait painter; you feel it should be the other way around.

Last time I had my portrait painted, it was by Patrick Procktor, and it was a long time ago. I was younger and sillier and a terrific poseur. I would say to Patrick, throwing my arms in the air, "What about like this?". He would say, "Great", and I had to stand like that for hours and hours.

Ishbel's portrait of me was pretty well finished by the time she left LA. It's a great portrait and I love it. It's me and yet not me; it has a removed quality about it. My husband doesn't think it's the me he knows, but he knows a different me. It's not a photo representation, but it's very precise and nearly realist. It's an extreme of me. At the time I was observing something else, so I look like that in the painting.

The portrait was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery, and being able to see it in the context of other portraits over dinner in the gallery was a truly memorable evening for me.

INTERVIEW BY CHARLOTTE MULLINS

Helen Mirren's 1997 portrait by Ishbel Myerscough hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055). The BP Portrait Award 1999 will be announced on 22 June, and an NPG exhibition runs from 25 June - 26 September.

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