Notebook: Gentlemanly art of house portraiture

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The Independent Online
ON A recent Saturday afternoon, the doorbell rang. The usual look of mild apprehension crossed the faces of our household. In London, middle-class London at any rate, friends do not arrive without prior arrangement. These days the sound of an unexpected knock is like the sight of a telegram boy on the doorstep in 1916 (well, not quite, but heading in that general direction; the certain thing is, that will not be your auntie come unexpectedly with home-baked scones from Kirkcaldy).

Who could it be? Mormons? The young gang who sell dishcloths? The Witnesses of Jehovah? Someone in motorbike leathers with the wrong address for a pizza delivery? Outside in the street, quite some distance from the door, stood a tall dark man who said: "I'd like to paint your house."

I was confused for a second. Our window-frames are certainly peeling; the gloss on the door is chipped; the stucco needs a few fresh coats. But nothing about this man suggested he was a house-painter. He stood there in a Prince-of-Wales check suit and a silk waistcoat like a Daks advert from Country Life magazine. He was what we used to call "well- spoken". The effect was a cliche of respectability, and gentlemanliness of a kind that died with the acting of Richard Todd.

He produced a card and then opened a portfolio and displayed some sheets of cartridge paper. A few pretty watercolours of houses, nicely sketched; he was a house-painter, I now saw, in the sense that he painted pictures of houses.

But why our house? He said because it was interesting and attractive, of an age and style that he enjoyed painting.

Now I like our house. It is perfectly fine. One in a long street of similar houses. Red brick at the front, cheaper yellow London stock at the back. Bay windows to the ground and first floors. Built 1890. The towns and cities of England have terraces and terraces of them, marching off the main roads of middle-ranking Victorian suburbs and once occupied by the families of foremen and senior clerks, handily placed for the tram. I imagine that plans for them could once be bought off-the-shelf by speculative builders. But "interesting" would not be a word I would use.

"You can't really think this house is interesting," I said.

"Oh yes", he said "very interesting and very attractive. I'd love to paint it."

His pitch was this. He would take some snaps and return in a few weeks with a finished picture. If I did not like it, no money need change hands. If I did like it, the price would be pounds 100 plus VAT.

That seemed a fair proposition and we shook hands, mainly because he seemed the kind of man with whom one shook hands, but after he had gone I began to worry that I had become, or was about to become, the victim of a scam. He had my name, address and telephone number. I imagined an empty house in the Easter holidays, a telephone ringing and ringing to ascertain our absence, a jemmy at midnight working a rear window loose.

All paranoia. He turned up at the door again last week, again in his check suit and silk waistcoat, with a watercolour of our house, lighter and pinker than in reality but true enough to its form, and pretty. Of course, I paid. Picture apart, it was worth it just to hear a little of his remarkable story.

His name is Peter Michael and he earns his living by walking the streets of London and knocking on doors and subsequently knocking out paintings of houses. He is, so far as he knows, the only practitioner of this craft in Britain; but he has definitely hit on something. The British love property ("an Englishman's home is... " and so on). Compared with Europeans, they live in an eclectic mixture of architectural styles, each with its devotees. Why would they not want a picture of what they lavish so much money on, and of what, however humdrum, they can be so intensely proud?

By divining this truth about the owner-occupier, Michael has made a career and re- invented a tradition that belongs to the era of Gainsborough and Lord and Lady X sitting proudly before their country seat. The money is good. On an average afternoon of walking and knocking, Michael said, he could collect 15 commissions that might, working hard with pencil and brush, take him a week to fulfil.

We arranged to meet for a drink on Thursday. This time he left his Prince of Wales check behind and turned up in a smock. The suit, he explained, was to reassure customers, although the smock also seemed to belong to another era - of the gentleman-artist - and it was no surprise to hear him say that he was looking forward to "a pint of ale". (As he is only 34, I guess he must be a strand of post-modernism, the human equivalent of a building by Quinlan Terry).

Ale purchased, he told me a few facts about his life. Born in Singapore, boarding school in Co Wicklow, architectural training at Thames Polytechnic and Aberdeen. Failing his final degree ("too arrogant" according to a note on his papers, although it is hard to believe that architects see arrogance as a fault), he devoted himself to the part of his training he most enjoyed: the study and depiction of old buildings.

In 1991, he began to knock on doors in Edinburgh, then in Glasgow and eventually as far west as Greenock. The Scots, he said, were still his favourite customers - they had a special interest in the visual - and he was always happy to find them (for example, me) in London.

How many houses had he painted? He was reluctant to say - "art" equalling rarity - but estimated that it might be 3,000 to 4,000. People were surprisingly generous, he said. The ratio of doors knocked on to pictures commissioned was roughly two to one. There were some good areas - Clapham, Islington - and some bad. Hampstead was the worst: "Lovely houses and lots of money, but the people there tend to be mean and suspicious."

It seemed to me that this was a pretty brave enterprise. Who would want to knock doors for a living, to risk so much rejection? It needs a peculiar combination of humility and resolve. Michael, on the other hand, said it did not bother him. He knew the ropes. Do it on a Saturday afternoon when people are not so busy, and stand a long and unthreatening distance from their door. And he had learnt to spot the likeliest houses. "My perfect clients," he said, "have just moved with their three children to a moderately attractive terrace house with some nice bits of stucco, and have two new cars parked outside."

Thanks to this work, Michael himself has just acquired an old Bentley convertible, but I do not mean to make him sound either greedy or cynical. I believed him when he said he loved houses and spoke of the thrill he got when his clients looked at a picture of where they lived and realised (or were persuaded to believe) that it was prettier and more interesting than they had imagined. Portrait painters do the same, and, as with a portrait painter, Peter Michael will subtract or modify features he suspects might offend.

In the picture of our house, for example, the dustbins are missing.

"Why no dustbins?" I asked.

"Clients tend not to like them," he said. "though I can put them in if you'd like me to."

He asked me to stress that he was an "artist" not an illustrator; he has exhibited in reputable galleries in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Personally, I think the difference in this case is complete guff, although I can see its usefulness as a selling proposition - "art" equalling (as well as rarity) something nice to hang on the walls.

He may be knocking on your door soon. The streets of Crouch End are the next to be trudged and after that, who knows, onwards and upwards to the provinces. He is also listed in the book, an 0181 number in Clapham. I should warn you, however, that, like those of the houses he paints, his prices are rising.

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