Presidential portrait leads with the chin

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Bill Clinton returned to Oxford last week in the guise of a major portrait - unveiled in the medieval hall of University College, where he studied nearly 30 years ago.

Two seconds of stunned silence followed as the drapery was pulled away and dons in gowns and students in jeans first gazed upon the image. For the artist, R.B. Kitaj, has given the most powerful man in the world one of the most powerful chins in art.

Mr Kitaj insists that the pose is the President's "signature" and is frequently adopted when the great man ponders the major issues of the day. "The eyes slit and the jaws go out," he said. Comparisons with the lantern jaws of the Habsburgs, recorded for posterity by Velasquez, are inevitable.

The commission results from an anonymous donation from one of the President's admirers, who insisted that the artist should be American. After much canvassing at the National Portrait Galleries of London and Washington, Mr Kitaj - an American who lives in England - was chosen.

One of the deciding factors, according to the college art curator, Hartmut Poggevonstrandmann, was a recommend- ation by the late poet Stephen Spender, a friend of both Kitaj and David Hockney.

According to the curator, works by Kitaj can cost up to pounds 400,000, but he was far too discreet to mention the commission fee here. Thanks to the generosity of Uncle Sam's Internal Revenue Service, the American benefactor will be allowed, under American law, to offset his gift against tax.

A former Rhodes Scholar at the college, and now an honorary fellow, Mr Clinton is the first non-British subject to join the ranks of VIPs immortalised in portrait form beneath the hammer beams - though they, it must be said, are represented in more conventional form.

Colin Dobson's likeness of the former University College fellow, Harold Wilson, for example, is so faithful to the life that it could almost be a photograph. Sir Oswald Birley's portrait of another former student and prime minister, Clement Attlee, is a model of tight-lipped restraint.

Once the project was under way, it took, according to Professor John Albery, master of University College: "more than 28 phone calls to penetrate the president's protective coverage." Arrangements for a sitting were eventually made last spring.

Travelling to Washington with his 10-year-old son Max, Mr Kitaj confronted the President in the Oval Office at the White House. "Imagine the thrill it was for me, with my little son, to be drawing the President I had voted for," Mr Kitaj said.

Unfortunately, however, this most painstaking of artists was only granted an hour, during which the president tackled the Bosnian crisis and briefed his top brass. "It was an unusual situation for me," Kitaj said. "The most powerful man in the world did not have that much time."

After the hour was up, he added, "I finished my drawing and did not know what to say so I said, 'Well, Mr President, you are going to be right up there with Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson'. He punched the air and said 'I love that! I just love that'."

Mr Clinton also had time to admire Max's watch which happened to be identical to his own. And so the father and son team retired, bearing a handful of lightning sketches and some photographs taken by Max. Over the next six months Kitaj struggled to give his creation final form in his favourite medium of pastels. "I hope it is all right. It is a most unusual way to do a portrait," he said.

A straw poll of college members taking up their seats at the trestle tables in the hall for dinner revealed mixed feelings about the new face glowering down on them.

"I had been slightly worried that it wouldn't be powerful enough," said Professor Albery, with a laugh. In fact, he added, when he and his colleagues experimented with hanging it adjacent to Attlee and Wilson, it "sneered them off the walls" and had to be given a wall of its own.

One student said: "It depicts the strength of the man," while another found it "comic".

Now the precedent has been set for portraits of foreign statesmen the race is on to find funding for one of another former Oxford man - Australian ex-prime minister Bob Hawke.

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