Issue Number: 94
Martin Gayford talks to painter Humphrey Ocean RA about the meaning we attach to portraits and the special relationship between the sitter and the artist
Francis Chantrey, John Raphael Smith, 1825. ‘Pictures and writings are portraits of their authors,’ opined Paul Gauguin. So where does that leave pictures that are images of other people – what we normally call portraits? Does a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh really tell us more about its sitter or its creator? This is a question I pondered myself as a sitter for Lucian Freud – was the final canvas a ‘Freud’, or was it me or, perhaps, a subtle amalgam of both?
One encounters that puzzle repeatedly while walking through the Royal Academy’s exhibition of portraiture in the age of Romanticism and Revolution, ‘Citizens and Kings’. Is the wonderfully belligerent Louis-François Bertin, for example, a faithful image of the man or a creation of the painter, Ingres? He now seems as much an evocation of his age as a character in a novel by Balzac. Are we seeing the long-dead sitter or a reflection of the artist’s mind?
I put this conundrum to a notable portrait painter of the present age, Humphrey Ocean RA. We met in the Fine Rooms of the Royal Academy, which have included a vast number of distinguished face painters over the last two and a half centuries. His answer to my question was both.
‘As a person who has painted portraits, I feel that what people don’t realise is that the process is weighted 50/50 minimum in favour of the artist,’ explains Ocean. ‘If you commission me, wanting an image of you, then you are probably going to get much more of me than you were expecting.’
This is fundamental. It is one of the most obvious points about not only the portraits in ‘Citizens and Kings’, but also the other wonderful pictures of people that we have been treated to recently in London, in a variety of exhibitions including ‘Velázquez’, ‘Holbein in England’ and ‘David Hockney: Portraits’. All the paintings in those splendid shows are identifiable as being by Velázquez, Holbein and Hockney, just as the masterpieces in the Royal Academy exhibition declare themselves as by Goya or Lawrence at a distance of yards.
Napoleon, in two portraits is – just about – identifiable as the same man: one on the imperial throne, the other in his study at the Tuileries. The first presents him in the guise of a Roman god and emperor; the second finds the great, self-made man hard at work in his study, the clock and candle showing it is a quarter past four in the morning. But Napoleon has also been transformed into an Ingres and a David, respectively.
Indeed, great portraits contain so much of the essence of their creators that a work executed by, say, Holbein, can be distinguished from one done by his assistants or close imitators. So you are looking at tiny, distinctive movements of his hand – which means the decisions of his mind.
On the other hand, Ocean contends the portrait is the record of an interchange. ‘If Holbein were making a portrait of you right now, he would have a good chance of noting down something in your look at this moment – as he did when he made that fantastic miniature of Mrs Nicholas Small,’ he explains, referring to a portrait of 1540.
‘Right now, you’re concentrating. Electrons are lighting up all over your brain, affecting your expression and demeanour,’ he continues. ‘You would be the impetus for Holbein’s portrait, but it would mean something to people who had never met you. To accomplish this, Holbein would do two things, neither of them easy. One would be to see something that is slight and fleeting, and the second would be getting that moment down. A good portrait is the result of two minds at work, and that is what is wonderful about it. It marks a relationship between two people, one mind recognising the other.’
Ocean maintains that we still encounter living Holbeins walking about in modern Britain. ‘Holbein nails down our Englishness even though – perhaps, because – he was a foreigner,’ says Ocean. ‘In the Tate’s recent Holbein exhibition, I found various people I recognised, as though I’d seen them in real life. Bishop John Fisher of Rochester looks like a man who used to be the director of a London Museum; Lady Audley (page 59) looks like the actress Deborah Kerr. I can’t put a contemporary name to Archbishop Wareham, but I am willing to bet that you will recognise that face. You will have encountered it in a pub or at school, as a look or some kind of authority.’
Consequently, he argues, when we look at an old portrait we may identify something we know from our own experience – perhaps a trait or feature of somebody we have already met. That helps to explain the feeling that you recognise the person in the picture. When he confronts Francis Chantrey’s bust of John Raphael Smith, for example, which features in the ‘Citizens and Kings’ exhibition, Ocean notices a truculent look. ‘I recognise that look: he reminds me a bit of the actor Michael Gambon. I’ve seen people who share that look, that lower lip, the set of his mouth, the chin jutting forward. There’s a kindness in his expression, an understanding.’ So it feels true, even if Smith – a mezzotint artist from the Midlands known for his dissolute habits – may not always have looked so surly.
‘I don’t know anything about James Hutton by Henry Raeburn,’ remarks Ocean of another portrait in the RA’s exhibition, ‘but I like looking at the man and his papers.’ In his day, Hutton was a prominent businessman on the committee of the Forth and Clyde Canal, and a famous geologist. But why should Ocean like a man who has been dead for over 200 years? ‘I love the colour of his suit – it’s like a chocolate mousse,’ he reveals. ‘And there is something quizzical, but also resigned in his face.’
The face is the part of the body we most frequently scan. Of course, we read the body too. As a portrait painter, for example, Ocean pays great attention to shoulders. ‘If you can get the shoulders right, you can achieve a kind of poise.’ But it is faces that we focus on. ‘In the newsagent all you see is faces on magazines,’ says Ocean.
He describes another favourite face from the recent Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery, Infante Felipe Próspero. ‘Everything about that picture still rings true after 350 years – the little spaniel with its chin resting on the arm of the chair and looking up pleadingly, the rustle of the silk,’ says Ocean. ‘Velázquez catches little unseen things that are not quite right in a young boy. This was the year before Velázquez died and it is as if he recognises the coming of death in this child – you can see it in the pallor of the skin, the dull eyes that retreat rather than galloping towards you in the way a child’s eyes usually do. The face is the heartbeat of the picture. The rest would mean nothing if it weren’t for those eyes and that mouth and the wisps of hair.’
Within the face, Ocean believes the most expressive features are the eyes and mouth. ‘A small contraction in the pupils can produce a light permafrost in a room,’ he says. But most of all, he believes, significance lies in the mouth. ‘Mouths are mobile and change shape at a whim. They denote intelligence and warmth, or alternatively thuggishness, pinched and petulant characters. In the Mona Lisa, for example, the mouth is what attracts us: she’s one degree up from being an ice maiden – there is a very slight come-on in the mouth.’
Ocean believes that the way Holbein drew mouths is the defining feature of his art: ‘The mouth is the most difficult thing to do and Holbein’s mouths are very individual. Often there’s just enough: any less and they wouldn’t be there, any more and it would be too much.’
What about getting a good likeness? Of course, likeness is a subjective and slippery notion. We all look different in different circumstances and to diverse people – to our bosses, our lovers, our friends and our enemies. Moreover, the sitter is seldom available for comparison – and may have been dead for centuries. One must accept the physiological accuracy of a great portrait on trust.
‘When we look at a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh,’ Ocean points out, ‘We’re not recognising Van Gogh’s Postman Roulin, we’re recognising ourselves.’ In other words, just as a novelist may describe feelings and experiences that we recognise, but didn’t know we knew, so a great painter shows us things about people that are at once fresh and familiar.
That is why paintings of people matter to us. ‘We’re terribly critical of portraits,’ concludes Ocean, ‘and so we should be, because portraits are us. The head and the face – they are the headquarters of consciousness. That’s what we are concerned about. Despite so many people saying portrait painting is old-fashioned, it keeps recurring. The face is the most central human image.’
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760—1830
, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, (020 7300 8000), until 20 April
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