Well I'll be hanged - they were my Eighties, too
As the National Gallery expressed no interest in exhibiting Jonathan Sale's portrait, he organised his own private retrospective, complete with critic
Wednesday 20 December 1995
But what about my Eighties? I was around during the period 1980-1989. So were you. Why is it that when artists are seeking inspiration for their next painting to grace a gallery wall, your face and my face never seem to provide it? What's wrong with our mugs?
It is possible to democratise portrait-painting. You, too, can be a patron of the arts, a Medici of the suburbs. You can commission your own portrait from mail-order portraitists who work from a photograph, or from street artists who will sketch your likeness while you wait.
Over the years I have built up a modest collection of contemporary, representational works. They represent my face. Art critics have failed to visit the room - the smallest - in our house where I keep them, so for an informed opinion, I showed them to a former magazine art editor, Sheena Boyd.
First in the catalogue was the work by one of the mail order maestros, "Tich" of Cartooncraft in Wantage. The epic theme I gave him was of Roy Hattersley (my one-time colleague on the one-time Punch magazine) and myself on our bicycles.
"I see a million and one of these," Sheena declared. "It's such a standard way of drawing a face, as if he's not wanting to annoy you." (I should hope not. I am paying, hence the term "paytron".)
"It's the standard comic caricature, the A-Z of How to Draw. The Big Head on Little Body Syndrome. I wouldn't say it's really you."
Next came the work by "Merc" of Shrewsbury. This included a frame - packed in such a way that the glass had been smashed in the post.
"That's terrible!" yelped Ms Boyd. "The Heavy Caterpillar-Eyebrow School of Portraiture; they're like iron filings. He's noticed you've got eyes, a nose, a mouth and glasses, but his Hattersley is better, as if he's practised on him before."
I rather liked Roy's calves, bristling like Desperate Dan's nether regions, but Sheena was critical of the strange trelliswork that filled in the gaps round the edges: "I don't understand the strange cross-hatching in a different type of pen, as if he's worried about not filling up all the space."
Malcolm Kerr of Burgh Heath, Surrey, provided the third of my artistic postal orders. Thanks to him, I am the first person ever to commission his own Identikit picture.
"He's given you a real Elvis sneer," stated Sheena. "It's a bit like those things you see on Crimewatch. You're definitely a man people saw late at night." But, she enthused: "He's got everything in just about the right place. I like this one a lot better. It's more you, with more feeling."
Her favourite, though, was not Malcolm's but the work of a secretive lad whom I shall call "J", since that is all that is legible of his Christian name. I sat for him practically within the premises of the National Portrait Gallery, round by the side entrance, in fact, amid the amateur Annigonis who wait there like visual buskers.
"J" charged extra if you wanted him to execute "something more polished, like that Woody Allen face". He pointed to a portrait he had prepared earlier. (Actually, I shouldn't think Woody Allen sat for him in person on the pavement of Charing Cross Road.) I was satisfied with the economy version, which measured 1ft 5in from the top of my pate to the bottom of my tie, by 12in across the shoulders. J's small talk was non-existent; so, too, at a guess, were his tax returns.
But he had chosen, in Sheena's expert opinon, "an interesting angle. You're easier to catch full on, but he's come at your face sideways. It's very relaxed, it looks as if he didn't have any trouble with it, and he hasn't worked too hard at the pencilling. He's caught," she concluded, "that nice friendliness about your face."
I am still friendly but have grown balder. Worse, I now have a different pair of glasses. This means that I share something else with the Princess of Wales and others at the National Portrait Gallery: none of these sketches looks much like me. Not even the ones that did in the first place. I had better call this a retrospective exhibition.
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