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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 August 2005, 15:03 GMT 16:03 UK
A brush with the past
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Portraiture graphic
Out of fashion for much of the 20th Century, portrait painting is enjoying something of a revival. And as with most things fashionable, Kate Moss has a hand in it somewhere.

It's never been easier to appear in a picture. The growing dominance of digital cameras and camera phones has made photography ubiquitous.

Logically this should be very bad news for painters, who slavishly turn out less accurate visual representations of the world at a comparatively sluggish pace and vastly higher price.

After all, the initial advance of photography in the mid-19th Century just about killed off the art of miniature portrait painting. By the 1960s photography had firmly established itself among the chattering classes as the chosen form for preserving one's image above the mantelpiece.

Painted portraiture simply fell out of fashion. Add to that the decline in painting as a whole during the 1990s - a decade more concerned with the artistic merits of pickling marine life - and it's a wonder that portraiture didn't vanish down the same plughole as that other artistic anachronism, Athena.

Yet the art world is abuzz with a revival in this most traditional of art forms. The apparent surfeit of photography seems to be driving people to seek out something more exclusive, less commodified.

Sara Stewart
Sara Stewart is inundated with painters wanting to be on her books
That's not to say it's untouched by commercial interests. The past 10 years have seen the sprouting of small businesses dedicated to portrait painting.

Sara Stewart, who runs Fine Art Commissions in London, has a roster of 60 artists and a steady stream of clients happy to pay upwards of 500 for a likeness. The basic price would cover a simple head-and-shoulders drawing, with a full oil painting running to between 5,000 and 10,000.

She started the business in 1997 and turnover has been growing at 30% a year. Others in the same trade include the National Portrait Association, and the longstanding Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

"Pre-War, portraiture was everything. It was a British tradition. But post-War there just wasn't the money and it became a luxury beyond the reach of many," says Ms Stewart.

Alongside photography portraiture began to look ostentatious and pretentious - the ultimate manifestation of an inflated ego.

But, says art expert Philip Mould, the work of several leading contemporary British painters, such as David Hockney and Lucian Freud - who painted fashion icon Kate Moss - has inspired a wave of young artists such as Stuart Pearson Wright, Jonny Yeo and Howard Morgan.

Rolf's role

Unexpectedly, perhaps, Mr Mould credits celebrity magazines with helping the revival.

Alenandra Daly
Property manager James Daly arranged for wife Alex (above) to be painted by Nick Bashall
"She was horrified when I told her," says James, "because it's such an intimate idea"
"It's fantastic... something to be handed down to the next generation"
"It wasn't cheap - I wouldn't have bought a painting for the same price. The value is very personal"
"Faces and people as a genre are more zeitgeist than they were before and this has something to do with photographs, though celebrity culture such as Hello!"

Every bit as mainstream is Rolf Harris who turned the spotlight on likenesses earlier this year with his BBC show Star Portraits - in which celebrities have their portrait painted by three artists before picking one to keep.

Also complicit in the celebrity portrait stakes is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). While attendance figures for the nearby National Gallery in Trafalgar Square have remained consistent over the past 10 years, the NPG has drawn almost 50% more visitors over the same time.

Its annual BP Portrait Award - which showcases young painters - drew a record number of submissions this year, pointing to thriving pool of young talent. Sara Stewart says she gets about 30 inquiries a week from artists wanting to get on to her books.

Intimacy, intricacy

Sandy Nairne, director of the NPG, says the renewal of interest in the painted medium is a "resistance and reaction" to the dominance of photography and the ease with which digital images can be reproduced.

Moss by Freud
Lucian Freud's portrait of Kate Moss sold for 3.5m earlier this year
He also says the gallery has benefited from a growing desire among people to explore history "in an approachable way", through individuals.

But technology has delivered vast improvements in photography, so why does anyone bother with painting?

"There is an intimacy and intricacy in painting for which people are prepared to pay," says Mr Nairn.

Artist Jonny Yeo - who has painted names such as diverse as Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair and Minnie Driver - says people are yearning for "the element of craft".

To Philip Mould, there's more to a painted image than capturing a snapshot in time. "It's an artist turning their insight and technical skills to the presentation of a persona, a character, a presence. A portrait is an assimilation of views distilled into one image."

But if there is still one thing that continues to put ordinary people off posing for their portrait, apart from the cost, it's the belief that sitting in front of an artist for hours on end is an absurd act of vanity.

'Self indulgent'

Former MP Tony Banks, who used to chair the Commons Advisory Committee on Works of Art, says he spent endless hours cajoling fellow members to pose for their portrait.

Most reluctant of all was Prime Minister Tony Blair, who after eight years at No 10 has still managed to thwart such demands.

"I'm disappointed at times that people think it's an act of vanity. [Portraiture] has a long and honourable history," says Mr Banks, now Lord Stratford. "There's a sense it's a bit self indulgent whereas they don't think twice about posing for a photo."

But with Mr Blair serving out his days in Downing Street, his stint in front of the easel may not be far off, at least given Jonny Yeo's theory about when people typically decide to submit.

"I find very often people do it to signal a turning point in their own life."

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Portrait painting should rightly enjoy a centre stage on the art scene. In terms of subjects, there hardly is anything else as visually varied, richly expressive and challenging to capture as the human form. And all this is down to a genetic code shared by 6 billion with the capacity to throw up an endless variation of what is essentially bone structure, soft tissue and pigment.
Samantha Jackson, United Kingdom

I've had a painting of me, aged 18, on my wall for over 20 years. Some might consider it vain, but I barely think of it as me, more as a beautifully executed painting that is more personal to me than it would be to others. I would think it much more vain if I had a whacking great photo of me on the wall. Particularly if it was a photo of me as a much younger person - that would look a bit sad. Painting has a timeless quality, photography dates.
LM, London, UK

I have several portraits of myself, clothed, 'life', just face and whole body - all for free as I have been an artist's model since my early 20s. What an interesting - if chilly! - way to earn a living :)
Heather Lindsay, Marston, Herefordshire

I had my portrait painted on a trip to Boston a couple of years ago. It's something I'd always wanted to do but the cost in this country had just been too prohibitive. I walked away not only with a fantastic painting but also with the memory of the occasion. Never before had i spent 5 hours sitting so still being examined in such minute detail by a complete stranger. An amazing experience in every respect - well worth the $350
Chris Millward, UK

Your comments that painting "went out of fashion" are completely erroneous. Painting as a pastime, an art school discipline, or profession were never stronger than in the period you refer to (1960-2000). Its just that the media did not pick up on it because it was not particularly trendy among the chattering classes or headline catching. Ask professional painters if their incomes fell during, or whether student numbers studying painting fell, or indeed if art suppliers saw a drop in sales during that period and you may find some evidence for your suggestions, but I think not.
Chris Reed, UK

Our Christmas present last year from my mother-in-law was a surprise portrait of my wife and I, painted from a photo she had. It is the best present I have ever recieved.
Graeme, England

Your report is right, painting and portraiture is on the rise and the stigma of it being a rich man's indulgence is becoming a thing of the past. After the Tracy Emin/Damien Hurst years we seem to be coming out of it longing for a return to craftsmanship and a more substantial artform we can put on a wall and get a personal response to. Rolf Harris has inspired the revival rather more than Kate Moss though.
smike, London, England

Yes there has been a turn to painting - but that has nothing to do with Kate Moss! Painting has seen a resurgence in the past five years - this is not a new phenomenon. However these portraits are conservative beyond belief, the fact that Rolf Harris is interested in them is evidence of that. Of course 'art expert' Phillip Mould is endorsing their return - he owns a commercial gallery that sells historical portraits! Why oh why is the BBC just so incapable of decent arts coverage I would love to know!
Tracey McDonald , Aberdeen, Scotland

I went into the National Portrait gallery on Saturday, and quickly remembered why I hadn't been there for ages: lifeless paint. All of the paintings were flat and lifeless, and made me wonder if I had stepped into a parallel universe in which Goya hadn't been born.
Tim , UK

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