Saturday, January 12, 2013

Paul Emsley and the Duchess of Cambridge - two videos and a drawing

Many people have commented on Paul Emsley's portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge.

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge
By Paul Emsley (b.1947)
Oil on canvas, 2012
1152 x 965 (45 3/8 x 38)
NPG 6956 © National Portrait Gallery, London; 
A National Portrait Gallery commission 
given by Sir Hugh Leggatt in memory of Sir Denis Mahon 
through the Art Fund
Below you can view two videos about the portrait and the portraiture process.

  • The first is a video available via TheRoyalfamily channel on YouTube or the NPG website.  In this one Paul Emsley explains the process used for the portrait and shows the photos he worked from.
  • The second was created by the Art Fund who helped fund the portrait commission.

For me both videos provide a much better picture of the portrait than that seen in many of the photos.

I'm now wondering how many of those who wrote about the portrait did so from the photographs rather than the videos.  (I do hope the NPG will replace their "for use on a website" image - see right - which has completely lost the colour which is so evident in the videos).

Can I recommend that both videos are viewed full screen as they provide a much better appreciation of the portrait - in which she does not look old!

The first portrait of The Duchess of Cambridge

The first video shows us:
  • the relative scale of the portrait
  • the photos Paul Emsley worked from
  • the way he worked - and the glazing in thin oils
We also hear more about a very important concept behind the portrait - about how the Duchess of Cambridge wanted a natural portrait and NOT one which showed her "on parade", as it were, in her formal and official role. 
"The Duchess explained that she would like to be portrayed naturally - her natural self - as opposed to her official self. She struck me as enormously open and generous and a very warm person. After initially feeling it was going to be an unsmiling portrait I think it was the right choice in the end to have her smiling - that is really who she is."
It strikes me that this decision shows us a woman with her own independence of mind - and it may well be that people will come to like this portrait very much more in the years to come.

The painting was created in May and June 201 from two sittings at Kensington Palace and at the artist's studio in the West Country, England, and Kensington Palace - and from photographs.

As always you can't beat seeing the painting in person and you can do that by visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London where it is now on display as part of the Contemporary Collections in the Lerner Galleries, Room 36, Ground Floor, National Portrait Gallery (Admission free)
The National Portrait Gallery’s painting of its Patron was commissioned by the Gallery, and given by Sir Hugh Leggatt, in memory of Sir Denis Mahon, through the Art Fund.  The Duchess was involved in the selection process, from which artist Paul Emsley, the 2007 winner of the Gallery’s BP Portrait Award competition, was chosen by Director Sandy Nairne to paint her official portrait.

The Art Fund Video

Below you can view a video created by The Art Fund which further explains the portrait - although it gets a little overblown in my view.

The basic point though that this is a portrait of a new Duchess at the beginning of her 'royal career' in which she will be painted again and again in a much more 'royal' way in a very good one - and one which a lot of people missed who commented on this portrait on Friday.

A titular 'faux pas'?

I'm greatly intrigued by the fact that both videos are referring to the portrait as "Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge" which is a term usually used for a divorced Duchess(!) - and I beg to refer both to Burke's Peerage on this topic!  (Readers may recall "Diana, Princess of Wales" as the title she assumed only after her divorce).

A drawing of 'Katherine'

I may be completely wrong about this. I was also greatly intrigued by a charcoal drawing of a young lady called Katherine on Paul Emsley's website.  To my mind this bore a considerable resemblance to photographs of a younger Katherine Middleton.

It made me wonder whether this was actually the first time she had sat for Paul Emsley - or whether she was a little more familiar with the work of this artist.

Links: Two more Making A Mark posts about Paul Emsley

Note: Glasgow-born Paul Emsley (b.1947) grew up in South Africa before moving to England in 1996. He won first prize in the BP Portrait Award in 2007 for his striking large-scale study of the face of his neighbouring artist Michael Simpson. His previous commissions have included the author V S Naipaul (2009) and Nelson Mandela (2010). He is represented by the Redfern Gallery of London and is associated with Brundyn + Gonsalves Gallery in South Africa. (

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  1. Very interesting videos, but I am still not impressed. A blown up photo would have been just as good.

    It would be interesting to see what Sue Ryder or Maggie Hambling would make of her.

    1. I think the thing is Bernard that you and I need to reserve our final judgement until we go and view it "in the flesh" as it were!

  2. Kate is gorgeous but I must say that I'm not overly thrilled with the portrait. It does add some years to her, I think. I'm reminded a bit of those computer generated images of aged children or bad guys that the police or FBI put out. Nevertheless, the artist's skill is evident and much beyond what I could ever hope to do.

    1. I think there's a tendency for people to compare her to Diane in her first flush of marriage and tend to forget that Diana was 20 whereas the Duchess is 31

      Let's be thankful she's not hit the plastic surgeon's couch!

  3. In our timid era, I feel the smile adds some confidence. I appreciate that very much. Although large, it is a simple portrait, and that is also a good thing. It drives home the point that the subject is human, pretty, and presented in this portrait for the viewer to relate to.

  4. The reception this portrait has received says much more about the poor quality of art criticism and blind critics than it does about the beautiful image. People just don't look any more, they scan and they don't perceive what's actually there, the image is not a photograph, it is a careful distillation of visual experience. Looking demands both knowledge and experience, seeing is a cognitive process.

    1. I'm very inclined to agree with you. They read but don't see.

      Some of the criticism reeks of what one person has characterised as "manufactured outrage"!

      To quote from the blog post i'm writing at the moment.......

      "My conclusion - people would do well to remember there's nothing media proprietors like more than the extra traffic caused by a bit of a controversy. They're also not above contributing to the feeding frenzy in order to generate comments and traffic and sell more adverts!"

  5. I typed out a comment, click on something and it was lost:(
    So here goes again.
    I think its a pretty good likeness of the Duchess but something is missing. I am not fond of the chocolate box nature of her hair, looks a bit like Diane Sawyer,(a leading news anchor over here) when they put filter on her face to make her look younger. I think the dark background sucks all the life out of her face and I noticed that in the photograph used, there is a lot more light plus her shoulders are bare. By covering her shoulders, he has made her look a lot more matronly than she is is. A young woman is proud to show off her shoulders whereas an older woman generally prefers to keep them covered.
    A friend of mine went to see the actual painting and here is her review -

    I don't dislike the painting, its very well executed and hopefully in real life it is not so bleak.

    I hadn't realised he was the same painter who did the portrait of Michael Simpson. The dark background (which seems to be his signature feature as its part of all of his work) actually works here because of the age of the sitter and the colour of the sitter's hair. All the folds of the skin and the bright whiteness of his hair, just pop against the black background.

    Michael Simpson was actually one of my tutors at Bath and the bane of my friend's life whilst we studied there, LOL

    Sorry Katherine, totally disagree about the drawing of the girl called Katherine, Not anything like the younger Duchess.

    1. I discovered that the drawing is actually of Paul Emsley's daughter!


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