Drawing Board

These images are selected from a portfolio of grandmaster chess portraits that I have created over the past six years. Most of the grandmasters are friends and colleagues — as well as being an official artist on the chess circuit I organise and present tournaments such as the Staunton Society events, held at that famous 19th-century home of the game, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. That was where I took the portrait of the English Grandmaster Nigel Short and his father (above right). It seemed for one split second that father and son were symbiotically connected — it is full of paternal pride and joy.

“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend,” said John Singer Sargent. There were nearly 2,200 entries for this year’s BP Portrait Award which equates to a lot of friendships broken. The annual exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has become a fixture since its inception 33 years ago and throughout the vagaries of taste of the intervening decades it has remained steadfast in championing traditional painted portraiture. A £25,000 first prize and its accompanying £4,000 commission help sharpen eye and hand.

Jenny Saville’s fascination with human flesh started as an art student when she was awarded a scholarship to attend Cincinnati University. Once there she became an habitué of the shopping malls of Ohio because that was “where you saw lots of big women. Big white flesh in shorts and T-shirts”. Big white — or pink — flesh has been her obsession ever since, to the point where she would even attend cosmetic surgery and liposuction procedures and photograph the operations. Artists from Rubens to Lucian Freud have shared her fascination but not her almost monomaniacal interest.

I spent all of last year drawing London-looking, exploring, finding new bits and revisiting, considering, reassessing and re-evaluating familiar places I thought I knew well. Wandering and drawing made me notice and think afresh about the city I’ve lived in for 60 years. Its vivid contrasts of past imperial splendours, and present decline and uncertainty; the disconnect between beautiful Whitehall with its seductive reminders of imperial and colonial power-nostalgia for which still seems to mesmerise our policymakers-and the city’s unseemly extremes of spectacular wealth and unemployment and poverty. Yet amid all these I enjoyed London’s visual and often stimulating muddle, its vivid ethnic mixes, the tolerance and courtesy of most people. 

According to the great 19th-century draughtsman Jean-Auguste Ingres, “Drawing is the probity of art.” This aphorism has been put to the test recently by the noise surrounding the graphic work of Lucian Freud and Tracey Emin. For Emin, the recently appointed Royal Academy Professor of Drawing and poster designer for the 2012 Olympics, probity — such as it is — resides in a drawing’s expressive qualities and not in its craft. For Freud without craft there was no expression.

The Photo League was a New York cooperative organisation founded in 1936 as an offshoot of the Workers’ Film and Photo League. It was disbanded in 1951 after being included on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organisations. Early on, there were several important members who did belong to the Communist Party, and the Photo League had close ties with several “front” organisations and publications. For instance, the Daily Worker and the New Masses were not charged for the members’ photographs they used, but other publications were. The league had a school that taught photography at several levels, there were exhibitions of members’ and guests’ work, an occasional publication, darkrooms, lectures by distinguished photographers, and — maybe most important — a place for like-minded people to hang out. There were never more than 100 members before the Second World War.

After leaving art school, Matthew specialised in drawing nudes, executing compelling life-size studies of young contemporaries. When he subsequently confined himself to carrying out portrait commissions, the careerist approach proved stultifying. The ensuing fallow period ended when he abandoned painting and devoted himself to refining his technique as a draughtsman. The sitters for his portrait drawings were now of his own choosing, and included Jamaican Rastafarians, mummified corpses from Sicilian catacombs, and the occupants of a Shanghai tenement. Initially, however, he resisted returning to large-scale nude studies, perhaps seeing it as a regressive step. 

I consider myself a New Yorker now, but I was born and raised in London. Before settling for art I considered standing for parliament, which would have placed me squarely in the family tradition: my father was Duncan Sandys, a Cabinet minister, and my grandfather was Winston Churchill. Incidentally, they were both talented artists.

Formerly a successful investment banker, British photographer Marcus Bleasdale has spent the last ten years documenting conflict and human rights abuses in the Balkans, Djibouti and Darfur. But since his switch to photojournalism — which has seen him work with Human Rights Watch and win Unicef’s photographer of the year award — it is work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has held a special significance for Bleasdale. It is a place to which he has frequently returned.

From the 1940s onwards the Polish-born Jewish painter Josef Herman (1911-2000) was a significant figure in British art. His path here, however, was a helter-skelter one. He fled his native Warsaw both to escape the authorities (who disapproved of his left-wing activities) and outrun rising anti-Semitism. For six years he crossed Europe, looking over his shoulder at the approaching Nazis and all the while forming a style to match his political views.