The Sitter's Tale: The surgeon and the artist became friends over a hospital bed

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery:
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I was already friends with John Bellany. We'd met years earlier when he came to Addenbrooke's for a liver transplant. I didn't operate on him myself, but I remember that almost as soon as he came round, he was embarking on a series of extraordinary self-portraits. He didn't need any pain-killers, he was so absorbed in these portraits. He did about 60 in three weeks.

I'm a keen amateur painter myself, and John was kind enough to give me lessons. I did a portrait of him at the time which was very different from the ones he was doing of himself, which were all about heroic suffering.

I think I learnt two things from John; on the technical side I learnt about the use of colours. He's a magnificent colourist and he encouraged me to use bright colours. Second, he gave me the idea of painting operations from an emotional rather than purely anatomical side. I often sit down and paint my patients - it creates a completely different relationship from normal. I find it works especially well with children. If they come into hospital it means their lives have usually been pretty unpleasant, and a doctor can seem terrifying. But I find that if I come in with my pencils they change immediately.

It was very appropriate when the National Portrait Gallery suggested that John do a portrait of me. He had this idea to do two versions of me. He was certainly well aware that I have two approaches to my work: the medical, obviously, and what you might call the aesthetic.

INTERVIEW BY ANDREW MACPHERSON

John Bellany's 1992 portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055)

Comments