The face of modern celebrity

As the National Portrait Gallery unveils its latest commission, a study of author J K Rowling, Louise Jury looks at 10 of the latest acquisitions and the process that led to their selection
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The Independent Online

Until this formal unveiling, the millionaire author of the Harry Potter books had not seen the completed three-dimensional depiction of her by Stuart Pearson Wright, the artist whose portrait of Prince Philip with a long scrawny neck deeply upset the royal sitter and caused a furore.

But she is reported to have been pleased with his initial sketches made in her office in Edinburgh, a local café and further sittings at her home. The finished work shows her sitting at a table with a notepad and a plate of boiled eggs, suggesting the café setting where she famously wrote her first novel.

If Rowling might seem an obvious celebrity candidate for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery collection, Sandy Nairne, its director, is keen to dispel any notion that it has abandoned principle for profile in its choice of subjects. "We were very pleased to get the Sam Taylor-Wood video portrait of David Beckham, for example, but for us the recent portrait of Dame Cicely Saunders [founder of the modern hospice movement] is just as important and she couldn't be less of a media figure," he said.

"One of the roles of the gallery is to bring people to the attention of the public. It is not just to celebrate [people of achievement] but to educate and interest people about them." Many people might know little of the work of the political economist Amartya Sen, he added, but he was exactly the kind of person who should be in the collection.

The selection of subjects is a very ordered process. Once a year the trustees, specially chosen to offer a cross-section of knowledge about British society from science to art, sit down to discuss candidates.

The gallery also provides information on the type of people being honoured elsewhere in the world - through the Nobel Prize, for example, or the Oscars - and a shortlist is devised of people to be approached.

When the gallery was founded in 1856 to collect likenesses of famous British men and women, it only collected dead people - and, moreover, people who had been dead for at least 10 years. Then, in the 1960s, its enthusiastic new director, one Roy Strong, convinced the trustees that introducing the living would be a good idea. By 1980, a formal commissioning process was in place, with the intention of commissioning a small number of portraits - around six a year - of eminent sitters not already well represented in the collection.

Around 130 paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed-media works have been added to the collection since and the 25th anniversary of this patronage will be examined in a special exhibition opening next March, entitled Icons and Idols: Commission Contemporary Portraits.

The gallery now spends between £60,000 and £100,000 annually on these commissions, though other supporters boost the coffers. BP, sponsors of the Portrait Prize, also pay for the commission which is part of the prize, while the Jerwood charity and JP Morgan support the purchase of portraits, including the latest one of Dame Judi Dench.

Stuart Pearson Wright secured his chance to paint Rowling by winning the BP Portrait Prize in 2001. What was impressive about the process, he said, was the care the National Portrait Gallery attached to matching artist with sitter. "What's rather nice is we both had a say in each other," he said. "The gallery has a number of people they want to have portraits of and a number of artists who they want to commission for different reasons."

He thought Rowling would be interesting and, luckily, she liked the portfolio of his work. Sandy Nairne describes the result as "captivating" and a work of "delicacy and charm".

Six British Paralympic Athletes

BY JOHN LESSORE, 2004

The six - Tanni Grey-Thompson (athletics), Chris Holmes (swimmer), Caroline Innes (athletics), Simon Jackson (judo), Maggi McEleny (swimmer) and athlete Noel Thatcher - all won gold medals at the 2000 Paralympic Games and the portrait by John Lessore, himself paraplegic, is set in the stadium in Sydney. Grey-Thompson is probably the best-known; she won four gold medals at Sydney over 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m and was subsequently awarded an OBE. Born in 1969 with spina bifida, she is paralysed from the waist down. Holmes, who is blind, won nine gold medals in Barcelona and Atlanta. Jackson is partially sighted, and the only Briton to have won Paralympic, or Olympic, gold in judo. Innes won two gold medals and one silver in Sydney. McEleny, born in 1965, has won more medals than any other British swimmer. Thatcher is a partially sighted runner and physiotherapist based in Harlow, Essex. At Sydney he won gold in the 5,000m and bronze in the 10,000m.

Cicely Saunders

BY CATHERINE GOODMAN, 2005

Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, was born in 1918 and studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University before changing course to train as a nurse. In 1947 she trained as a medical social worker and qualified as a doctor in 1957. She founded St Christopher's Hospice in 1967 to provide total and active care for patients with incurable diseases. After many years as its medical director, she became its chairman and president until 2000 and was an active advocate for the hospice movement. She died in July, not long after this portrait was unveiled.

J K Rowling

BY STUART PEARSON WRIGHT, 2005

J K Rowling's six Harry Potter novels have made her one of the world's highest earning women. Born in 1965, she was head girl at her school in Gloucestershire before graduating in French and Classics from Exeter University in 1987.

After Jessica, her first child, was born, she famously struggled to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in a café in Edinburgh while the baby slept in her pushchair. Following publication in 1997, the book became a sensation.

By the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released in 1999, Rowling had novels occupying the first three spots of The New York Times best-seller list. The following year, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire became the fastest-selling book in history. The fifth book,Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was delayed by an unsuccessful plagiarism case brought by Nancy Stouffer, also an author of children's books.

In 2003, Rowling became involved in another legal battle when publishers of unauthorised Chinese-language "sequels" to the Harry Potter series were forced to pay damages. In February last year, Forbes magazine estimated Rowling's fortune at £576m, making her the wealthiest woman in Britain. The Goblet of Fire, the fourth film, is released in November.

David Beckham

BY SAM TAYLOR-WOOD, 2004

David Beckham already occupied a niche in the nation's consciousness when he proposed to a Spice Girl. The footballer from Leytonstone, east London, was propelled from talented player to tabloid fodder. His career has since eclipsed that of his wife, Victoria. After failing his exams at 16, Beckham went to play for Manchester United's junior team. Two years later he was a first-team regularand in 1996 he helped them win the league and FA Cup double. By 2003 he was England captain and was transferred to Real Madrid for £25m. David and Victoria Beckham have three sons; Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz.

Jan Morris

BY ARTURO DI STEFANO, 2005

Born James Humphrey Morris in 1926, Jan Morris was convinced from her earliest years that she should have been a girl but fathered five children before having a sex-change operation in 1972. After a brief stint as a journalist, went to Sandhurst as an officer cadet and spent the Second World War in Palestine and Italy. Studied at Oxford University after being demobbed where he combined a degree in English with editing the student newspaper, Cherwell. Became a journalist for The Times, famously covering the 1953 Everest expedition, but eventually left journalism to write more than 30 books which have been critically acclaimed.

Bernard Haitink

BY MICHAEL REYNOLDS, 2004

The Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink was born in Amsterdam in 1929, but much of his career has been spent in the UK. He has been principal conductor of the London Philarmonic Orchestra (1967-1979), music director at Glyndebourne (1978-1988) and musical director of the Royal Opera House (1987-1998). Since 2002 he has directed the Dresden Staatskapelle. His repertoire includes the complete symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich. He was given an honorary knighthood in 1977.

Onora O'Neill

BY VICTORIA KATE RUSSELL, 2004

Born in Northern Ireland in 1941, Onora O'Neill is one of Britain's leading philosophers. She studied at Oxford and Harvard and has written widely on political philosophy and ethics, international justice, bioethics and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. A former philosophy professor, she is now principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. She was created a life peer in 1999 and was a member of the Select Committee on Stem Cell Research. She also chairs the Nuffield Foundation.

Alfred Brendel

BY TONY BEVAN, 2005

Regarded as one of the greatest classical pianists of the second half of the 20th century, Alfred Brendel was born in Czechoslovakia in 1931. Largely self-taught, he made his first recording at 21. He is considered to be one of the most thoughtful interpreters of composers such as Schubert and Mozart and his prolific recording career includes the Beethoven piano concertos and sonatas. In recent years he has been forced to give up some of the more physically demanding pieces due to arthritis. He lives in London.

Bill Morris

BY JOHN KEANE, 2005

The first black leader of a trade union was born in 1938 in Jamaica. He originally intended to study at agricultural college in his home country, but followed his mother to Birmingham in 1954. He started work at an engineering company, and attended day-release courses at Handsworth Technical College. In 1958 he joined the Transport and General Workers Union and became its general secretary in 1991. Married with two sons, he retired two years ago.

Three Royal Court Directors

BY JUSTIN MORTIMER, 2004

Stephen Daldry, Katie Mitchell and Ian Rickson have all been important figures at the Royal Court in London.

Rickson, 42, succeeded Daldry, 44, as artistic director while Mitchell, 41, is an associate director. Since standing down from running the venue, Daldry has added film to his CV, notably the hit Billy Elliot, which he subsequently directed as a theatre musical.

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