IN A SMALL bookshop in Padstow my eye was caught by a picture of a girl's head on a jacket of a novel by Anita Brookner. It was a detail from a fine painting by my old friend Norman Hepple, and delightedly I wrote and congratulated him on the work. It pleased me to think that there were open-minded people who recognised its distinction, for, although Hepple had been for more than 40 years a leading portrait-painter, kind words from art writers seldom came his way.
He was a proud professional painter - especially of portraits. His abilities brought important commissions from all walks of life, royalty, the law, industry and high society, as well as a miscellany of odd bodies whose personality took his fancy. He relished the complications of the conversation piece: three paintings immediately come to mind, one done for Lincoln's Inn, one of his wife's uncle and aunt, another of a group in a gunroom.
The years during which Hepple worked offered few honours for portrait-painters. His election to the Royal Academy was just in the days when there were enough members who respected traditional work to elect him, but the RA was intent on purging its walls of lord mayors, generals and suchlike public figures. No one ever said, 'Why can't we have better portraits of lord mayors etc?' So a source of income and employment which had served Britain for so long was downgraded; come the reorganisation of the art schools it became a subject greatly scorned and no longer taught.
But Hepple prided himself on being a professional painter. He studied the art of portrait-painting in all its aspects. By nature he seemed a taciturn man, but with a sitter before him he had a flow of talk which ensured that the boredom of sittings did not stale the atmosphere. He was shrewd about his sitters, adept at finding a subject of mutual interest and import. He never 'deigned' to paint anyone, but sought for a likeness and a celebration of his subject. Once the sitting was over he became a very private person. Usually a portrait-painter of his eminence would lead a fairly social life - and it would be good for business - but Hepple found relief from the strains of portrait-painting in rambles round salerooms and junk-shops. And houses. He had a passion for houses, finding odd places which he would do up himself, searching out building yards for floors and doors and hammering and sawing with real happiness. He enjoyed the good things of life, but in his own quiet way; he had a house and boat on Lake Garda where he holidayed with his beautiful red-headed wife Jill and their son and daughter. Later he found a house in Spain where I joined him and we painted together.
His eminence and success led to his becoming President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, but I never felt that he enjoyed committees or office. Painters are often given to long-winded ramblings and he wasn't a tolerant man if he thought rubbish was being talked.
The art establishment won't mourn the absence of his work from the exhibition walls, but it will flow back - as with the book-jacket. (What an interesting viewpoint on painting has arisen by this practice.) The lovely portraits he made of his wife and daughter will endure and ever give pleasure.
Yet I wish there had been a fairer reception of his work - all painters need criticism, and if only those who sit in judgement would ask themselves, 'What has this painter to offer us, where do his talents lie, how best to harvest his gifts', then we all might have more to give and more to enjoy.
Norman Hepple was born in 1908, and we last met at the election of the new PRA on 17 December. Having cast his vote he left the meeting to return to his home in Richmond, Surrey, travelling by underground. Blindness had brought his painting to an end, and crossing a road in Richmond he was knocked down by a car and taken to hospital with a broken arm and leg and dreadful cuts and bruises. However, this brought out the cussedness which made him so endearing - he never lost consciousness and relished the new life he found around him in a public ward - but the operations and repairs were in the end too much even for his remarkable spirit and strength and he died suddenly on 3 January.