Middle England queues up to be done in oils

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The Independent Online

Once a portrait was the preserve of the wealthy merchant, wishing to have his status recorded for posterity. But now unprecedented numbers of "ordinary" people are waiting up to two years to have themselves preserved in oils.

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters is fielding about five requests for commissions every day - a previously unheard of number. Painters are finding their traditional commissions such as businessmen and dignitaries increasingly replaced by "informal" and personal sittings.

"Usually we get a lot of inquiries from corporations and schools, or livery companies when the chairman retires. They're ongoing. But now we're seeing increasing numbers of private individuals," said Katy Letman, a commissions consultant at the society.

So popular has such portraiture become, that some artists now have waiting lists of up to two years. Others admit to putting up their prices in an attempt to reduce demand.

Ms Letman believes the trend is partly because of a mood of affluence in the middle classes. But she also ascribes it to millennial fever. "People want to be able to say, 'This is us at the turn of the century'. I'm sure that has an effect."

She is bracing herself for a renewed bout of interest when the society opens its annual exhibition on 4 May. "People often get prompted by our exhibition, which has formal, informal and family portraits. They look at the styles and suddenly they can see themselves like that."

The British portrait painter June Mendoza said she wasbooked solid. "I'm seeing a lot more ordinary people. I have noticed that especially this past year. A lot of them are just Mr and Mrs Bubbles and their children."

Ms Mendoza believes a general boom in the art world - and an increased public interest in it - may be responsible. "I think there are a lot more interesting artists now. It's a good time for portrait painting. [The] straight abstract time has gone and realism is coming back."

Whatever the reason, it is rarely an inexpensive indulgence. A "mid-range" head and shoulders in oil by a reputable artist costs between £2,000 and £6,000, requires between six and 10 sittings, and can take up to four years to complete.

Rebecca Udal, 32, sat 10 times for her portrait by Gareth Harker, who is booked six months ahead. A mother with two children from Islington, north London, Ms Udal said she "had always liked the idea" but was prompted by her husband's family, who had portraits of previous generations. "I also wanted to have it done before I hit my mid-30s.

"We went to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and nothing particularly grabbed me. Then I happened to look at the back of Country Life [magazine] and that's where I found Gareth," she said.

"I liked his style and asked if he could send me some photographs ... I thought he was reasonably sympathetic without being too flattering. I wanted something realistic."

So pleased is she with the result that her husband, Nicholas, will soon sit for his own and their children may follow, albeit in pastels. "It's something very tangible that you can hand down to a child. We've just been given portraits of my husband's parents and we've got them restored and hung them and I thought perhaps it might be nice for the children to do the same with us. Then again, they may end up sitting in some dirty cellar for years."

Oliver James, a psychologist,said the popularity of portraiture may be explained by a move towards individualism, and the increasing rapidity of technological change. "[Such change] does give a feeling that things are transient and nothing is substantial ... therefore people want to create something permanent through an image."

Katy Letman, who has had "a couple" of portraits done, has other suggestions. "Is it about vanity? Up to a point, but it's such a lovely thing to have done. It's so completely different to a photograph," she said. "I don't think they're vain because it's not purely you. It's the artist that has done it. In a way I think it's much less vain than a photograph. And it's tapping into such a huge tradition."