Portrait of the Artist, Then & Now, Giles Coren, 2013
Sitting for Jonathan Yeo for the first time in fifteen years, watching him watching me and preparing to make his first marks on the paper (he began with a pencil sketch before moving to oil and canvas), it occurs to me that if I could only paint, the way that he paints, there is so much I would want to get down. To begin with, I would want there to be something, in the 42-year-old face on the paper, of the 14-year-old boy I knew at Westminster, where we were both at school.
Jonny was in the year below me (I am afraid I will have to call him ‘Jonny’ from now on, even if the art world has given him back the longer name that his mother originally bestowed on him – because to me he has always been ‘Jonny’) and even then he had all the absurd confidence and social ease that dazzles people now. If you were sketching him, you’d have to put something in his smile and in his beady black eyes that people could see had always been there: the way he lolled and twinkled in the face of authority, diffused tension with a laugh, disregarded pomposity with a half-smile.
Jonny manifests no nervousness or anxiety, ever. Doesn’t recognise the gulfs in authority, age, sex, money, power that traditionally separate humans from each other. He never has. It is probably the person quality of his that I covet most, more even than the painting. He is always relaxed, never uncomfortable. Everything is always a breeze, in Jonny World.
Although who knows what dark miasmas crowd into Jonny’s mind when he is all alone, what demons visit him at night? Over the years, I assume they have been myriad, legion, terrifying – but they do not show in daylight. Maybe he has a portrait in the attic, of the wracked and troubled Jonathan Yeo we do not see.
We know how he sees himself because he has painted himself a few times. I have a self-portrait of his in yellow, I think it is a linocut (though I know nothing about art). It features nine identical images, fading as the paint thins, with “Happy Christmas Giles, 1995” written on it. The face in the picture is truthfully plump, the hair slightly quiffed, the expression stern. (Like many of Jonny’s friends, I have a reasonable collection of his bits and pieces from the old days: prints, sketches, rejected oil studies, handed over as presents at the last minute as an alternative to stopping at Oddbins, which we loved, of course, and hung on walls, but only recently, as his prices rose, have we begun to think, “Now where did I put that biro landscape of the Cap d’Antibes he did in the back of a taxi for my 21st?”)
And there are self-portraits here in the studio, which I look at while Jonny is looking at me and scratching away at the paper with his pencil, to distract myself from the slight existential discomfort in which I find myself, coming under his professional gaze for the first time in so long (“Should I have had a haircut? Does he think I look old? Wouldn’t he rather be painting Sienna with her clothes off? Can he read my mind? Is he going to give me a hand with my piggy eyes and nascent wattle?”)
In the self-portrait I can see from here, Jonny is looking away from my gaze, high and to my left, a heroic or mock-heroic pose (one never knows with Jonny), very faintly Classical. Very serious. Very thoughtful.
But that is not the man I see in front of me. It looks like him, of course – Jonny’ portraits always do look like their subjects, always have that unique kind of likeness that is all of a person’s facial expressions worn at once, in a moment both in and out of time – but there is something missing. Something that I, if I could paint, would want to have in there: he isn’t flirting.
I mean, obviously he isn’t. He has been working from photographs or a mirror, or both, and naturally he doesn’t flirt with himself. That would be weird. But he flirts with everyone else. It’s not about sex, it’s about charm. And I’m sure he doesn’t know that he is doing it. Properly charming people don’t. But it’s a useful thing for a portrait painter to have working for him, invisibly.
Anyway, he isn’t flirting now. He’s doing that thing that painters do with a pencil: shutting one eye and looking at me sort of through the pencil and moving it up and down. I want to tell him he doesn’t have to do that with me. I believe he is a painter already.
He tries a couple of ways to approach the drawing. He tries it on an easel, with some sort of water colour paper he isn’t used to, which bounces a little as he draws in a way that he doesn’t like. And so at our next sitting he does it on a pad, leaning back and scribbling into his lap, with his legs crossed, ankle over knee. This is more the Jonny I know than the upright, fully concentrated man at the easel. This is the Jonny who might be sketching a history teacher from the back of the class or a girl in the front row who pretends she hasn’t noticed, and keeps flicking her hair from side to side and looking round and tutting.
But in the end he doesn’t like that one either. And when I go back for a third time (it’s not exactly a hardship: there is nobody in the world I would rather talk away a morning with than Jonny, and it’s nice to be alone with him for a change, and sober), he decides to start over for the third time. This time in oil, straight onto the canvas, which he does standing up.
“I’m not used to thinking of the sketch as a finished thing,” he says. “I’m not going to do three lines on a page and that’s you to a T, and then I’m onto the next thing. I like getting it down in paint and then you can shape it. You can get movement with paint. You can get reflections: a little bit of blue from the light coming off Damian…”
Jonny’s recently finished Damien Hirst, for the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, is hanging to my right: big, blue and brutal in his vulcanized Armageddon suit, trapped in a glass box. To my left is Grayson Perry in a babydoll in his pink bedroom, Helena Bonham Carter emerging from a fairy tale swirl, and then a grisly Jude Law (“Jude said he didn’t want another picture of him just sitting there looking pretty”), glistering Sienna, Stephen Fry with his wonky nose, Parky, Kidman, Sigmund Freud, some leaves made from porno offcuts in the now famous style, Kidman again, Rupert Murdoch, that celebrated Erin O’Connor he did years ago, his daughter Tabitha, Tony Blair, Kevin Spacey as Richard III, straddling a chair like Christine Keeler, still crowned, half-hunched, miraculously at once both movie star and Dick the Bad.
You can’t help but envy him. The talent, the time, the access, the life, the self-fulfilment, the power, the romance, the volume of serious work already done and the glorious future implied by the stretched canvasses leaning against the walls, blank and expectant.
But most of all I envy him the easel, with its chunky, pre-industrial functionality, and all the other tools of his trade: the solid, workmanlike trolley of solvents and bottles, oils and varnishes, the hundreds of brushes of different sizes in their pots on the wall, the knives and rags… he may be an artist, but these are the weapons of a craftsman, almost of a blue collar worker. The butch paraphernalia of a mechanic or farrier. The sort of stuff every man wants to feel could be part of his life.
I’ve just got my dainty little laptop, on whose flimsy keyboard my soft fingers patter like sparrows feet to get a bit of Jonny ‘on the page’. But he scratches and wipes at real paper, with the backup of some serious working kit. Like a man.
Perhaps even more than the easel, I envy him the termite mounds of old oils that tower and lean on the top deck of the trolley, thick with the suggestion of previous portraits, of work done, and of work yet to come. Piles of paint, squeezed and mixed, oily little mountains of colour that will be shaped into people by his ever-so-slightly-more-than-human hand.
I’ve envied those oil mounds right from the beginning. The sense of purpose in them. The way their age and oxidised carapace, hiding beneath the skin the dazzling brightness of the pure colour, speak such a different story from the sparkling party boy who made them. Even when he was painting me for the first time, on the terrace of my parent’s house in France in 1999 – because he was planning to give them a landscape in return for using the place, but was just at the stage where portraits were becoming all-consuming – even then, I looked with envy on the little piles of paint, and considered giving up writing to become a painter. A really, really bad painter, who couldn’t paint anything that looked like anything so had to do abstracts instead – just so I could have the little piles of paint.
That was right at the beginning, not long after the portrait of Trevor Huddleston that showed the way: blocky, geometric, full of heavy contrast, toweringly alive; and the Virginia Bottomley that I got published in The Times, with a piece alongside by me, each of us using what standing the other had, to make something interesting happen; before the gradual drum roll of celebrity sitters; before the, for Jonny at that time, high-concept triptych of the three party leaders at the 2001 general election called “Proportional Representation”; before ‘Bush’ and Paris Hilton and the porno wallpaper and all this, now.
There is no room here for a proper word portrait. Just a sketch. Just the beginning of a sketch. Barely the proportion markings on the paper from doing the one-eye-and-pencil thing. But still I want to get down some other details: the egg-yellow packs of Merit smoked out the window on the train back from sports matches at country boarding schools; the days at sea on his uncle’s boat off Antibes, eating rotisserie chicken bought from a shop on the way down to the coast and drinking Domaine d’Ott from the bottle; his art tours of the Colombe d’Or; long lunches in London that end in the Groucho at three in the morning; stag nights in a desert somewhere…
And then I look back from the window and straight at Jonny, and there he is, staring at me, quite serious, purse-lipped, almost noble, and only beginning to smirk when I look straight back at him, as if we were eight-year-olds playing the blinking game. I guess it must be like that for whoever is sitting here – actors, business tycoons, naked girls, world leaders – they’re all going to feel a bit self-conscious, and Jonny must be there to break those difficult moments down into reality’s constituent pieces, and then put them together again.
I wonder if they worry, as I worry, that he is noticing what is wrong with them. He stares at my hands for a while and I wonder if they are perhaps too big or too small. He looks straight at me and squints hard. And I think, “What? What? You’ve had 28 years to look at my face, what the fuck have you suddenly seen?”
He doesn’t really like people looking at their portrait before it is finished, he says, because so much changes, he’s just getting the general shapes down, and if they see something in it they don’t like, it affects how they think about themselves and how they sit thereafter. But he doesn’t physically stop people. So I get up a couple of hours into the first oil sitting and have a look.
As with the charcoal sketches, I am surprised that my head is so big. It’s not that I look fat, just sort of… leonine. Beefy. My jaw looks very set, and quite wide. And, yes, he has noticed the bags under my eyes.
“The eyes are looking quite baggy at the moment,” he says. He means, I realise, on the painting rather than on me. And I tell him that’s fine, I’m not here to be made beautiful. I don’t have the problems of Jude Law, I don’t worry that my extreme beauty makes it difficult for people to take me seriously, but I can live with my baggy eyes.
“And the jaw needs thinning a bit,” he says. “You were moving around a lot and I’ve got more than one outline there.”
Thank Christ. He doesn’t actually think I look that. I was just moving too much. I resolve to sit rock solid still from now on, if it means looking thinner. And I’ll maybe trim my crappy beard more carefully next time, maybe fool him into giving me a decisive jawline.
Jonny’s skills at making his exalted subjects relax and open up to him are legendary. But we sit in silence for a lot of the time. Well, Jonny stands, now that he’s decided on oil. We have done a lot of talking these last thirty-odd years. There isn’t much anymore that we urgently need to say. We rarely see each other without alcohol and other people, so we chat for twenty minutes before he starts and when we stop for lunch, about our young daughters (he takes his away for mini-breaks in European cities and they stay in grand hotels and dine together in ornate dining rooms), our wives, our fathers (his quite famous and alive, mine quite famous and dead), and then we get to it again, and I sit and look at the wrinkled stalagmites of paint and the famous people who have all been looked at by Jonny for so many hours, and are now looking down at me. And I wonder again how on earth my old friend got to this bright studio and a place in the world that so many thousands of artists dream of but never come close to (my wife thinks it is because he survived cancer and now just doesn’t give a damn – Jonny, when I put it to him, thinks it might be more complicated than that).
I think about it during the next sitting, too, in which he does a lot more standing back, looking at me, and then back at the canvas, and then at me, and back, repeatedly, until I am not self-conscious about it anymore. Now he touches the brush to the canvas only with his arm at full-stretch, rotating between the four or five brushes he has clamped between fingers, and one in his teeth, so that tiny, tiny applications make huge differences, and something more like the real me emerges from the one he wasn’t quite happy with.
I even get one more, final sitting, and feel very privileged, even a little guilty, despite our old friendship, to be occupying so much of his time. And when the picture is done, and he is happy, we leave me to dry on the easel and go down to the old-fashioned French restaurant across the road from his studio for lunch.
And there on display on a table are some bottles of Domaine d’Ott, the very wine that we used to drink by the magnum in France in the old days. It is clearly a sign of some sort. This time, though, we order just a half bottle. Because these days we have things to do.