AN ARTIST friend of mine recently presented me with an enormous portrait of myself completely out of the blue. It was a real shock which rendered me speechless for several minutes as I fought for the right thing to say.

The portrait was horrendous. I was so concerned not to offend my friend by revealing my true emotions, that I went way over the top with vacuous flattery: I simply loved it, the best painting I'd ever seen, I would treasure it for ever. I silently knew that I could never live with it.

But this monstrous caricature moved into the flat and was here to stay. As I sat and stared at it (at me]) it began seriously to disturb me. Was this how I really looked? Did she really see me like this? My flatmate said there was something positively evil about it, and even accused my friend of being a witch. Some people thought the artist must hate me with a vengeance and others thought it was a joke.

When I saw the photograph from which the portrait had been taken, I could vaguely see a resemblance. But I had looked like that only for the millisecond during which the camera shutter had been open; she had captured me in that form for ever.

How can we know how we appear to others? Our image of ourselves is invariably the full frontal static one in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning, or dolled up ready to party, not fluid and changing and 3D.

I knew the artist was not trying for a literal likeness (the camera had done that, sort of) but was seeking to portray the essence of my personality, or some characteristic of my inner soul. When I looked at my portrait I expected to recognise some part of me, but all I saw was this vile lumpy vomit that had been thrown on to the back of an old door.

The problem I faced was what to do when the artist came round to the flat. After declaring dishonestly how much I loved it, how would I be able to explain its absence from my walls? How would she attract new commissions (which she desperately needed) if it wasn't prominently displayed? How could I say I was so attached to it that I'd had to put it in the attic for future generations to find? Or should I bring it out just before her visit? Supposing I forgot one time? I would have to live this lie for ever. That fear destroyed our friendship.

Now it has happened again. Another friend has just changed careers and taken up painting. I thought it my duty to support and encourage her (as good friends do). She suggested I commission her to paint a picture of my mother's house, as I was stuck for a present for her birthday.

When it eventually arrived it was a real horror. I knew my mother would hate it. It was totally unsympathetic to the feel and character of the little country cottage, all overgrown with rambling wild roses.

This friend had been to the cottage on many occasions and I thought she had shared in its tranquil and timeless atmosphere. But she had chosen to portray it as a shocking confusion of violent and clashing colour. I tried to be objective and judge it as a work of art, but it was too personal; however I looked at it, it was my mother's home and the place where I had spent an idyllic childhood. I felt it was insensitive and insulting.

The dreaded moment came when she asked me what I thought of it. I um'd and ah'd and played for time. I really tried to like it so that my critical appraisal could gush with sincerity. As I had been in this situation before, I was determined to be honest this time and not get tied up in knots of


But could I be honest? Was it simply a question of a different taste and style? Or some sinister subjectivity emerging like an unwanted home truth? The whole problem boiled down to the fact that I valued my friendship more than the painting; it was, after all, a mere object on which pigment had been liberally daubed.

Then my friend asked me whether my mother liked the painting. I said I thought so, that it already had pride of place up on the wall. This was hardly critical, but not effervescent with praise, either. She immediately went into a massive sulk that unleashed a string of pent-up emotions about what a bad friend I was. She hasn't spoken to me since.

I asked my mother what she thought of all this. She told me a story of when she was six years old and gave some perfume to her mother for her birthday. She had collected some mulched-up weeds and leaves, and mixed them in a jar with slimy pond water. When her mother was getting dressed up to go out, she put on her new perfume, pretending to breathe in the wonderful aroma and saying it was her favourite.

It was years before my mother realised how kind and tactful her mother had been.

My mother has also read this article and, as you can imagine, she said it was wonderful. But is it? If we cannot rely on friends and family for a useful and honest opinion, whom can we rely on?