I sat for the last time – there were six or seven sittings – for my oil portrait yesterday. A four hour session, always under the same kind of light – early afternoon onwards. A vanity project? Almost certainly. But I had the suspicion last summer, 2013, that there was something wrong with me, which maybe impelled me. Annabel Cullen, the portraitist, whom I knew, had said to me for some years that she would like to ‘do’ me, no obligations: she liked to keep her hand in between commissions etc. I had two months in London last summer and, finally, said, ‘OK, let’s have a go but I don’t know what I’ll be like as a sitter.’ I was also playing round with an idea – that hasn’t gone away – about a painter. I wanted to see her at work.
The initial session was a drawing in charcoal. I was uncomfortable at first looking at her - direct to camera, so to speak – so I read a book, and, after two hours of rapid work on her part, you can see the result above. It was exhibited last year and someone apparently said, ‘He looks rather thoughtful and kind.’ I see a kind of genial scepticism (in other words a bit less rosy a view) and when we came to the oil portrait I said to Annabel (almost certainly unnecessarily) I want it honest, to reflect the way I am – or the way you see me. After three sessions I was having difficulty getting over to her studio in Balham, with heart disease finally revealing itself, and we abandoned the sessions until after my operation (see the previous essay). Privately I thought the image – a bit more than an outline - just a bit bland (she did too), but, of course, there was no detail. As I got better and we communicated from time to time by e-mail I said things like: ‘I’ve lost two stones. You could do before and after portraits.’ And ‘Why don’t you do one of my chest?’ – which had a spectacular scar, like a zip fastener, where they had opened me up. Annabel had painted one of her regular sitters, Adrian, with a bare chest, so my suggestion wasn’t outlandish. Wisely, she ignored my comments, and I started sitting again, intensively, a week ago. Three sessions, all quite long, and the picture was finished. I look drawn, a bit anxious and sad – but not without humour. Which is the way I’m feeling. I like it, and it will probably find its way onto this web site, as I’ve bought it. It will remind me of this summer and the – necessarily - new way of life I’m getting used to. A friend rang me recently to say his parents had had similar operations to mine and it was ‘like moving from eighteen holes at golf to becoming a nine hole golfer.’ He – Evan Davis – is just on his way from the Today programme to ‘Newsnight’ and approaching the peak of his career. I’m older and a lot less whizzy, but there are advantages or – perhaps a better word – compensations in my quieter way of life. ‘A time,’ as the Bible and the Byrds tell us, ‘for everything under heaven….’
A couple of riders to the portrait painting. I had met Annabel through Nina Bawden, the novelist, two of whose books I had adapted for television. Annabel had painted Nina, and Nina – being Nina and contrary – hadn’t much liked the result, though was polite. It’s crazy. When I think of Nina, who died last year, I can think of no more faithful image than that painting, currently in the fond possession of her granddaughter. During my illness Annabel had changed the background to my portrait. There had been some books, which seemed both obvious and wrong, and now there was a striped blue and white – what would you call it? – rug? Tapestry? I mentioned to Annabel that I thought it worked, if being somewhat arbitrary. She said, ‘It’s not arbitrary. It’s Greek.’ Nina had a house in Greece, where I had stayed. So the Nina connection is there in the picture. Annabel liked me to talk while she was painting – it gave the mouth some animation - and got most of my life story. But I’ll leave this particular account there, wanting only to get it down while it was fresh in the mind. I’ve just been assessing where I’ll put the painting and have settled on a quiet place on top of a little bookcase in the living room, where it will just be in the corner of my – or anyone else’s - eye. And a final thought. Who will have the painting and the charcoal drawing when I’ve gone? They were not so much a vanity project, perhaps, as an attempt to cheat mortality (much on my mind). I love those medieval and early renaissance paintings that announce, ‘Subject unknown.’ Maybe mine, when my friends have also departed, will finish up in some junk shop or, indeed, be painted over: a decent canvas can always be reused and I could finish up as pentimento. There are worse fates.
Addendum: 2016. As I have recovered - it took a time - the picture does indeed remind me of the way I was. It's like the portrait of Dorian Grey, in reverse.