Portraits that tell their own story

`I'd rather be thought of through what I'd written' Alan Bennett; `It's got this incredible flicker about it of energy which is her energy' Germaine Greer on Paula Rego; `I think there is a great intensity about my gaze' PD James
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The Independent Online
The novelist PD James enjoyed it because she could sit and plot her next book. John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, found it "absolute agony" because he still fondly believes he looks 19 years old.

The agony and ecstasy of having your portrait painted is described in a series of revealing interviews with celebrities carried out by the National Portrait Gallery.

The taped comments of the artists and their subjects will form part of a new sound guide to the gallery's collection which is being introduced next week.

It is not just the subjects of the portraits but also the artists who give the unique insights into the business of portrait painting. But it is the sitters who have their self delusions most cruelly punctured.

John Mortimer found himself in a freezing studio with a painter "who wouldn't allow me to either read or talk to him, perched on this sort of pile of furniture with an inadequate sort of electric fire.

"And the only happy result of it was that were able to use that place as a scene for a very unpleasant murder in a Rumpole story."

Of the portrait itself, Mortimer adds: "I find it very difficult to talk about because I avoid looking at myself in mirrors and I shave in the bath without a mirror and I only know that I've cut myself when the bath water goes pink. I have very little idea of what I look like. I imagine I look 19 and very thin and handsome, so the picture came as a bit of a shock to me..."

Tai Shen, who painted him, also had a difficult experience, explaining, "It took forever. I think the head took about two months. I had to endlessly scrape it down and start again..."

It took a while too for the great figurative artist Paula Rego to paint Germaine Greer.

The two of them listened to the whole of Wagner's Ring cycle during the six sittings.

Ms Greer says of the result: "I think it's a wonderful picture. I know it doesn't make me look particularly good-looking, but I'm not good-looking so that's all right...

"I think it looks like a portrait of intelligence. It's got this incredible flicker about it of energy which is her energy more than mine. But my image is invested with her power and her concentration."

Ms Rego remembers: "Very slowly, I held my breath and then, slowly, I began to do the corner of her face, the pencil, pastel, crawled down the side of her face picking up the resemblance as it went along. It was like a fishing-net trapping the face."

Sir Bobby Charlton desired neither power nor a fishing net, but had a hankering to wear his football kit. However, it was eventually decided he was too old and should settle for a track suit. Stephen Hawking, the scientist and motor neurone disease sufferer, was asked by painter Yolanda Sonnabend to remove his glasses.

She says: "There was this lightness about him. A lightness and a clarity, and of course somebody whose mind knows no frontiers. So it was really getting an expression and I took his spectacles off, because of these wonderful piercing blue eyes, almost like a child actually..."

PD James would think about the plot of her next crime thriller during her sittings.

She says now, using the language of the thriller writer: "I think it's slightly sinister, yes. And there is a great intensity about it. I think there is an intensity about my gaze.

"You do feel that things are happening beyond that door, a sense really of menace in the air."

The painter Maggi Hambling gave her self-portrait three arms and three hands "one for everything you need as an artist. I mean one for the brush, one for the cigarette and one for the drink."

But for Alan Bennett the whole process was torture. "I'd rather be thought of through what I'd written, rather than through my own physical presence," he says, "because I think it's such a dismal physical presence most of the time."

It was Bennett who addressed the question of portrait painting definitively in his fictional dialogue between The Queen and Sir Anthony Blunt, her surveyor of pictures in his play A Question Of Retribution.

Blunt assures her that portrait painters "are seldom standard bearers of the avant garde Ma'am."

She responds: "They would hardly be painting me if they were. One doesn't want two noses.

"Mind you, that would make one no more unrecognisable than some of their efforts. No resemblance at all. Sometimes I think it would be simpler to send round to Scotland Yard for an identikit. Still I can understand it when they get me wrong, but some of them get the horse wrong too. That's unforgiveable."

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