Portrait of a harassed mother as Guinevere

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The Independent Online

Having admitted to once eating dog and twice smoking skunk, I find myself the butt of a steady stream of hate-mail. Give me a break, I'm not all bad.

Having admitted to once eating dog and twice smoking skunk, I find myself the butt of a steady stream of hate-mail. Give me a break, I'm not all bad.

Right now, for instance, I'm trying very hard to help a friend promote a Chinese artist called Chen Yan Ning who has just completed three portraits - of the Queen for the Honourable Artillery Company, Prince Philip for Trinity House and the Princess Royal for the University of London. They are incredibly good, exactly like photographs, which probably explains why none of the royal correspondents he invited to view them showed up.

Not controversial enough, they said. Now if, say, the Queen had been portrayed as a lap-dancer, Prince Philip as a Teletubby and the Princess Royal as - I was going to say a horse, but that's hardly controversial - OK then, the Princess Royal as Posh Spice, that would be a story. "You mean no one wants to read about an artist who trained in Communist China painting propaganda posters of smiling peasants striding towards the new dawn, escaped to America and now paints the royals and other famous people such as Richard Branson and Jane Asher?" said my friend indignantly. That's precisely what I mean. Anyway, it's not as if the fellow needs publicity. He charges £20,000 a portrait (dogs and horses £1,500 extra) and is never short of commissions. He's here at the moment to paint the Lord Mayor of London (not Red Ken, the other one), and the Lady Mayoress has expressed an interest in an unofficial sitting.

That's the other thing about Chen Yan Ning. He flatters. He's taken years off Prince Philip and made him look like a film star. Little wonder that when the duke was asked who he'd like to paint his next official portrait he said, "Oh, you know, what's his name. That slit-eyed chappie with the pigtail."

Portraiture is a funny business. Look what happened to Graham Sutherland's version of Churchill. There's a happy medium somewhere between chocolate-box and caricature that very few achieve. When the children were small, and there were only four of them, I had a letter from an aspiring portrait painter who offered to paint all of us, including the cat, as work experience. If we liked it we could keep it for a nominal sum, if we didn't, she'd put it in her portfolio.

I wasn't keen. In an age when you can buy a disposable camera for £5.99, only people with an inflated opinion of their importance agree to sit for a portrait. It was too complicated, I said, the children had school, the baby had whooping-cough, the cat was pregnant, none of us had suitable clothes, it would take too long. Half an hour was all she needed, pleaded the aspiring artist. I'm a soft touch. Oh, all right, I said ungraciously, and she arranged us on the sofa, grubby school uniforms, snotty noses, the baby alternatively whooping and throwing up over my shoulder. She snapped, she sketched, she left. Three months later, a Pickford's van turned up and two men carried in a large bubble-wrapped package approximately 8ft wide by 6ft high.

"Quick, quick everyone, come and see, it's the picture," I yelled. What picture? they asked. You know, the one of us all on the sofa when Tom had whooping-cough. It wasn't. It was a sunlit glade surrounded by a shady wood wherein five figures variously lolled and lounged, each in a preposterous costume. I was Guinevere, complete with medieval snood, the girls were Arcadian shepherdesses, the baby was Little Lord Fauntleroy. Everyone, including the cat, had eyes like saucers and no one, including the cat, was remotely recognisable as themselves. "We could use it as a dart-board," suggested my husband.

"It's magnificent, truly magnificent, but we just haven't the wall space, I'm afraid," I told the aspiring artist. As practical work experience goes, you can't beat a smiling peasant striding towards the dawn.