The Famous Face of Portraiture

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Posted 10th February 2020

The Famous Face of Portraiture

It could be said that there is an element of intimacy during the creation of a portrait. Afterall the portrait is a reflection of the artist's experience in the sitter's company, to the point where it could almost be regarded as a psychological study.

The artist, and RP member, John Wonnacott CBE was inspired to paint a portrait of the actor Oliver Ford Davies after seeing him in a production of King Lear.

When discussing the piece, Davies admitted to his naivety regarding the time scale of Wonnacott's artistic process, and initially imagined that it would be finished by Christmas that same year.

'Christmas!' Wonnacott exclaimed, 'It will take at least two years!'

Davies reflected on the experience, and said 'I would sit for 2-3 hours, we would talk, he'd paint, then I'd go home'. These sessions were numerous, and true to Wonnacott's words, spanned over approximately two years. One can imagine many subjects were discussed between the Actor and Artist, one of which, Davies confirmed, included fishing.

When asked about the process, Davies spoke of his own experience of examining portraits.

'I always ask the question, what has the painter got to say about this person?

I think you can only get that, if you have a whole number of sittings and you talk a lot to the person, and you get to know them.'

The concept of the artist understanding the subject on almost a psychological level, Davies felt was 'an essential part, [it] applies right through the arts.' Concerning portraiture this element is unignorable. The viewer instantly begins to read the subject's body language, looks into their gaze, examines their clothes. Davies recounted how Wonnacott changed the colour of his shirt form blue to black and then returned it to blue.

For Davies, a portrait painter expresses in their painting, 'I think I've got this person, I've got something to say about them'. As we look on at the theatre of portraits lining the walls, the viewer can only ask themselves this question: What does the artist have to say about this person?

The Actor Oliver Ford Davies, Thinking of Lear, by John Wonnacott can be seen at The Show Goes On: A Theatre of Portraits by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters at Watts Contemporary Gallery is on until 23 February.

Image: John Wonnacott, The Actor Oliver Ford Davies, Thinking of Lear, Oil on canvas

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