Emma Sergeant: Studies in untruth

Revealing how portraiture scares subjects who would prefer to be photo-shopped

Drawing Board
“Adam and Doris”, 2015, by Emma Sergeant (©EMMA SERGEANT)

“The only thing Jacob Rothschild will be remembered for in 100 years’ time is his portrait by Lucian Freud—who’s going to remember you?” 

My question was addressed to a successful businessman and patron of the arts who needed a portrait for his boardroom and had invited me to his office to discuss the matter. Things got off to a poor start when he said he disliked the Freud of Jacob Rothschild, and my reply lost me the commission.

When I look at portraits, I see history revealed. The Tudors live for me through Holbein, whose models did not ask him to correct their squint or soften their features. The Capodimonte Titians of Pope Paul III depict a querulous old man hanging onto power. Innocent X’s reaction to Velázquez’s portrait of him was: “Troppo vero!” (“All too true!”), yet the artist was still paid for revealing the true nature of the sly, calculating pontiff. Goya’s portraits of the Spanish royal family make its members look eccentric verging on the ridiculous, and go a long way to explain why Napoleon took over, yet they did not hide them, let alone destroy them. Helena Rubinstein did not ask Graham Sutherland to give her a facelift, and nor did Lord Beaverbrook suggest he make him look less shrunken and petulant. 

When I won the Imperial Tobacco National Portrait Gallery portrait painting prize in 1982, I was still a student at the Slade. Three commissions for the NPG followed: of Lord Olivier, Lord David Cecil and Sir Christopher Cockerell. Despite my youth and lack of experience, it did not occur to any of these great men to try and affect my representation of them. On seeing the finished picture, Laurence Olivier commented: “Joan [his wife] will love this portrait, as it makes me look like the mean bastard I am.”

Sometimes, I have found kindness behind a rough exterior. My sketch of Jeremy Paxman reveals a gentler and far more hesitant nature than his public persona suggests; I was delighted to hear that my portrait of Michael Portillo is so loved by his wife that she has hung it by her desk. At other times the revelation can be less comfortable, even alarming. A portrait should not merely reproduce the features, it should expose what a camera cannot. 

This can prove painful, for both artist and model. A couple of years ago I began the portrait of a lovely young girl whom I was looking forward to drawing. We chatted away as I worked, but I suddenly began to feel as though my lines were losing their freshness and her face was turning into a funerary mask. I stopped and asked her what was going on in her life. She opened her bag and showed me bottles of pills, saying that she would scream if she didn’t take them. The finished portrait shows her smiling, but her eyes look as though she was crying. I now ask prospective clients what medication they are on, and if they’re on Prozac (which an astonishing number are), I politely suggest we don’t go ahead.

As the years passed I began to notice a greater insecurity in my sitters, particularly the richer ones commissioning more expensive portraits. It was not just a question of the more you pay the more you worry. In the past, people have paid very high prices to be portrayed by a painter they admired and were prepared to live with the finished work, however it represented them to posterity. Nowadays it seems people want to control the process themselves, and increasingly use artists who will work from a photograph, carefully chosen by the sitter and perhaps even photoshopped.

This has had a detrimental effect on the skills of portrait painters, since more and more of them have to learn to copy strictly defined, and often false, images. If you do not work from life, you will never touch the spirit of a human being—or for that matter, of an animal.

It takes courage to live with the truth. One highly distinguished client commissioned me to paint him at a time he was going through a very public and distressing divorce. My portrait of him made his secretary gasp in horror when he saw it as it bared the full extent of his vulnerability and sadness. Some of his friends suggested he either hide it or get me to repaint his face at a later stage when he had recovered his spirits. He refused to be swayed by such arguments and I am told it hangs in pride of place.

There have always been insecure people, plagued by anxiety about how they are perceived by others. But when one sitter urged me to make his nose smaller, I felt I was dealing with something more than mere vanity; it was clear he did not like the way he looked and thought he could alter reality with a few tweaks of the paintbrush. What people like him do not appreciate is that a portrait that has been doctored becomes lifeless and cannot be a work of art.

More and more individuals seem to be unhappy with themselves, and it is increasingly easy for them to reinvent themselves as they would like to be seen, thanks to digital technology and social media.

What sort of an age are we living in, when so many feel the need to retreat into a digitally constructed, comfortable place which the truth cannot reach? It bodes ill for artists: truth is what all real art is about.