Four women (make that five) at the National Portrait Gallery

We went this morning to the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, as we do every year, and it was disappointing. Maybe it’s the effect of too many portraits, many of them similar, in one place. If I saw each one on its own in somebody’s front room I’d probably be impressed, but sadly the sum of the parts is less than the whole.

In contrast, Chantal Joffe’s 12 foot high picture of her and her daughter naked was arresting—and not just because of its size. Joffe has a direct, simply, witty, painterly way of painting that grabs you. She has painted a series of pictures of motherhood, herself pregnant and then with Esme, her daughter, in a variety of poses.  You feel the strain, intimacy, and joy of motherhood.  I couldn’t find the painting we saw on the web, but I found this one of her with Esme.

Joffe with Esme

There seem to be no men in Joffe’s paintings, but a few years ago we saw another series of her paintings at the National Portrait Gallery that explored and celebrated her friendship with Ishbel Myerscough, another painter. It was an exhibition that lingers in the mind, saying something about female friendship that I couldn’t learn in any other way. There were paintings by each of them of each other. The Gallery seems to have acquired one, which is below.

NPG 6959; Ishbel Myerscough; Chantal Joffe ('Two Girls') by Ishbel Myerscough

by Ishbel Myerscough, oil on canvas, 1991

The boldness, wit, and freedom of her paintings reminded me of those of another woman artist, Rose Wylie, whom Lin has long known but I’ve just encountered—at the Royal Academy Summer Show. Wylie is in her 80s and dedicated herself to painting only in later life once she’d raised her children. As I look at her paintings, which seem usually to be big, I wonder if I could make myself equally free and begin to paint again. I fear, yes fear, that I couldn’t—and that even if I could the final effect wouldn’t work. It takes discipline to be that free.


At the gallery I also saw three new portraits, all of women I’ve met. One is of Sally Davies, the chief medical offer. I’ve known Sally for 25 years, and just yesterday I got an email from her office declining to meet me to discuss the polypill. The portrait is a strange shape, captures the determination and energy of Sally, and makes the point that her eyes are everywhere by reproducing her eyes several times in an otherwise straight painting. I liked that she’d obviously chosen to have her office staff included in the painting, showing that without them she’d be nowhere.

Sally davies

There was also a new portrait of Cicely Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement and now dead. I remember her summoning me down to St Christopher’s Hospice for a wigging—because she felt I was soft on assisted suicide. I felt privileged to be wigged by her. The picture was distinctly average.

The last picture was of Helena Kennedy, the Glaswegian QC. We had dinner with her and her husband yonks ago, and I heard her a year or two ago debate assisted suicide. Her portrait was technically interesting but unrevealing.



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