The Sitter's Tale: Sir Anthony Dowell

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: in the week of his resignation, the director of the Royal Ballet reflects on his 'stunning' photo-realist portrait
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Philip Harris won the BP Portrait Award a few years ago, and the director of the National Portrait Gallery, I think, was in charge of picking the subject that he painted as part of his prize. I came up on the cards to be the next person to be painted.

I didn't know the artist at all at the time. I was very honoured to be selected, but you hear about people posing for portraits and you worry about all the time it takes to sit for them. I was very busy and it looked like it was going to be a big headache for me.

Philip and I met on the telephone first, and I asked him about the time needed to complete the portrait, and he said, 'Oh, you don't need to worry, I don't work that way'. He only wanted a couple of hours of my time to photograph me. I didn't even have to go to his studio; he came to my house. He wanted to photograph me in very strong light, so when he came over we went into the garden. I was photographed in blinding sunlight, and I remember thinking that the portrait would be very much warts and all. I would have loved it if the National Portrait Gallery had chosen me as a subject when I was younger - this is a cliche, but when I was more of an oil painting as it were - but this portrait is definitely me now.

He actually came up with the pose. Because I had been a dancer, he wanted the idea of dance to come through. It's not a known position, but it gives the sense of dance, I think. Because I had put myself in the hands of choreographers for years I didn't mind. He also chose my outfit. He wanted me to wear a white shirt - the sense of the painting must have been in his mind from the start; this very stark black-and-white look. The light reflects on me and the shirt and that catches the eye.

I never saw the photographs he took; he chose which picture to work from. I didn't see anything until the velvet shroud was pulled back from the portrait when it was unveiled at a private dinner with close friends at the gallery. I was asked if I wanted to have a sneak preview just minutes before anyone else saw it.

I think it is stunning. It is almost more photographic than a photograph. Some people would say, why not just have a photo, but when you look closely at the painting there is a lot of freedom in the brushstrokes. It is much more complex than a photograph.

I have had a lot of feedback about the portrait from people who have seen it in the gallery. Everyone really likes it; it's unusual. It is obviously of someone who has been on the stage, a performer.


The Royal Ballet's summer season at Sadler's Wells opens on 6 July. Sir Anthony Dowell resigned as director of the Royal Ballet last week and will leave the company in 2001. The 1995 portrait by Philip Harris hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055)