Thursday, March 20, 2014

Simon Weston portrait unveiled at National Portrait Gallery

Simon Weston by Nicky Philipps was unveiled in the Balcony Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery this morning. It's the first joint commission by the BBC and the National Portrait Gallery . It also represents a major step forward in terms of the representation of people who have experienced facial disfigurement in the permanent collection of the Gallery.

The portrait is the result of a poll to find the individual who should be honoured with the "People's Portrait". 12 candidates were identified ( see end )and then the great British public - or at least those watching the One Show on BBC1 - got to vote for the person they thought should be honoured with a portrait. 

The winner was Simon Weston, the Falklands veteran who suffered 46% burns to his body when the Sir Galahad when it was destroyed at Bluff Cove in the Falklands Islands in 1982.
Simon Weston was born in Caerphilly and joined the Welsh Guards in 1978, aged sixteen. In 1982 he was aboard RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Sir Galahad in Port Pleasant in the Falkland Islands when it came under fire during the Bluff Cove air attacks. Of his platoon, 22 members lost their lives, and Weston suffered 46% burns to his body and face. He underwent more than 70 operations to reconstruct his face, and credits his family and old regiment with helping him overcome extreme psychological trauma. He became a popular media personality, and is a writer and patron of a number of charities supporting people living with disfigurements, including the Healing Foundation.
The framer, the sitter (Simon Weston), the portrait painter (Nicky Phillips)
and the BBC reporter/presenter (Fiona Bruce)
The process of painting the portrait - from commission to unveiling - is also the subject of a BBC behind-the-scenes documentary presented by Fiona Bruce. This hour long programme will be broadcast on Sunday 13th April. As the artist told me this morning, she wasn't allowed to touch the canvas unless the cameras were rolling!  she also commented that painting to a BBC deadline was a novel experience.

The portrait was completed in 8 x 2 hour sittings between October and December 2013 in Nicky Philipp's London studio. She painted it alla prima, as is her custom, with no preliminary drawings. 

Simon commented to me that she seemed to be wearing out her shoe leather while painting. He noted that she would make two or three marks and then back up to take a look - and then make two or three more marks - and so it would continue.

He's previously had his portrait painted as part of the Sky Arts programme about painting portraits. He commented that with these programmes, the painter who painted fastest was always at a great advantage and he didn't think the process was fair to all the painters. However he felt the BBC's approach to filming the process of portrait painting was much better and much fairer to the artist.  

The first time Simon Weston saw the painting was in the gallery this morning.  The family all wanted to know what his mother thought of it - and his mother told me "It's him to a t!"

In the portrait he's holding his medals in his hands which were very badly damaged in the explosion. They had apparently lived in his mother's house for many years in a Black Magic box.  Those medals now include the OBE which he was awarded for all the money he has raised for charity.
I felt it was important to show Simon’s hands. They were badly burned but he still has the use of them, and I wanted to show him holding his medals. The bright pinkish-red of the OBE in Simon’s hands, draped over the chair, brings a flash of colour to the lower half of the picture which I feel is aesthetically satisfying
Nicky Phillips
On the seat of the chair is the cap of a Welsh Guard. This is symbolic of all those other soldiers who were lost when the Sir Galahad was attacked - just as Simon's own cap was lost at the time.

Simon Weston and his family
Currently the National Portrait Gallery is also hosting an exhibition of portraits associated with the First World War (see MAKING A MARK: "The Great War in Portraits" - a review 26 Feb 2014). These include the pastel drawings of soldiers with trauamatic battle damage to their faces made by Henry Tonks - the Professor of Drawing at the Slade School of Art. He assisted Harold Gillies at the Queen's Hospital in Sidcup in Kent by recording the progress made by the soldiers while Gillies went about the process of inventing plastic surgery and treating patients.  The exhibition includes Tonk's coloured pastel drawings alongside the black and white photography of the same patients.

Patients treated by Gillies and drawn by Tonks
One thought which occurred to me this morning at the unveiling was what we were told at the preview of WW1 exhibition. Apparently after the First World war, the soldiers who suffered damage to their faces were not treated as war heroes as those who suffered the loss of limbs often were. Instead the society at the time considered them as being people who needed to be kept out of sight - not fit to be seen in public.

It seems to me that one of the major achievements of Simon Weston has been the change in attitude within this country in relation to people with major facial disfigurements. 

His mother told me that when he came home to Wales, Securicor wanted to offer him a job. It turned out that the job on offer was as a security guard for some vaults in a basement where he would be working a night shift. 

It seems as if very little had changed since the end of the First World War.

However, Simon's attitude to overcoming the challenge of what happened to him has enabled him to help a lot of other people - able bodied and otherwise. He's been able to make a career as a very popular public speaker.

He is also now one of Patrons of the charity 'Changing Faces' and I spoke to its founder and CEO this morning. James Partridge OBE told me 
"We're absolutely thrilled for the public to choose somebody they really respect and have empathy with. His face is enormously connected with dignity, strength and inspiration"
He also told me that Simon is the first person who has experienced significant facial disfigurement to have a portrait added to the collection of the NPG.  The only person prior to him was Richard Hillary, a fighter pilot in the Second World War whose pastel portrait was bequeathed to the Gallery by his father.

The important thing is that this portrait is of somebody who has been recognised for his hard work in overcoming the challenge presented to him and who has gone on to help and awful lot of other people. 

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