Jonathan Yeo

martin gayford


An Index of Identity (Excerpt)

Jonathan Yeo is a twenty-first-century portrait painter. All the elements of that description are important. He creates images of specific people; he makes them in paint; and he does so in a way that is contemporary in both technique and mood. Over the past two decades, he has portrayed some of the most powerful and celebrated individuals in the English-speaking world, including two prime ministers,Tony Blair and David Cameron. Among his other sitters have been the actor Nicole Kidman, the artist Grayson Perry, the international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, and the Duke of Edinburgh. Seldom, even in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heyday of society portraiture, has one artist so rapidly portrayed such a gallery of the famous, the influential and the controversial.


Yeo is thus, in that respect at least, the successor to portrait painters of the past such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence, John Everett Millais and William Orpen. But to describe him in that way immediately raises a question: exactly what can an exponent of brush and canvas contribute in an age in which every smartphone can take photographs and videos and send them anywhere in the world in an instant?

There is an answer to that, which was given some years ago by one famous artist – David Hockney – when talking about a portrait of himself painted by another, Lucian Freud. When you looked at the canvas, Hockney said, you could see all the hours of sitting ‘layered’ into the pigment. In other words, a portrait is the record of a relationship between two individuals, one that unfolds as the two people involved get to know each other – through time. One of the strengths of portraiture – also a major difficulty – is that all of us change, all of the time. We alter in all manner of ways – emotion, energy level, responsiveness – not just from day to day, but almost from minute to minute. 


When I was sitting for a portrait for Lucian Freud in 2003 and 2004, he put the problem like this: ‘One thing I have never got used to is never feeling the same from one day to the next, although I try to control it as much as possible by working absolutely all the time. I just feel so different every day that it is a wonder that any of my pictures ever work out at all.’ Not only does the artist fluctuate in this way, so does the sitter. As Lucian went on to remark: ‘You will have been with different people and may wake up in a different bed, perhaps with a new person, all these kinds of things can affect you.’ Even if nothing more has influenced you than a night’s sleep or a change in the weather, you – or at any rate I – may turn up for a sitting in an altered psychological and physiological state. Indeed, they can be much the same.

According to another Freudian dictum, ‘If you look different, I think you must be different, because what you look like is you, isn’t it?’ That is a profound portrait painter’s credo: you are what you look like. And, obviously, we intuitively feel that to be so, which explains the perennial appeal of portraiture. The human face, of all the items in the world, is the one that another human being is most primed – psychologically and biologically – to take an interest in. It contains a vast amount of information about the person who owns it, perhaps, according to some views, all you really need to know. Charles Dickens put this case well in his short story Hunted Down: ‘There is nothing truer than physiognomy, taken in conjunction with manner.’ The speaker in this tale is a retired manager of a life-assurance office, who goes on to confess that he has frequently been taken in despite his scrutiny of faces. ‘How was I so deceived? Had I quite misread their faces?’ He answers his own question. ‘No. Believe me, my first impression of those people, founded on face and manner alone, was invariably correct. My mistake was in suffering them to come nearer to me and explain themselves away.’ Of course, portrait painters positively encourage their subject to come close, but they are always likely to be looking at the movement of your features rather than concentrating completely on what you say.

Recently, I have had the experience of sitting for Jonathan Yeo. His painting started a little less than ten years after the portrait of me by Freud, and began even more abruptly. Lucian gave me an appointment a few days in advance, so I knew when the picture was going to begin. This time, I was just sitting, chatting in Yeo’s studio when he suddenly said he thought he would like to paint me if I didn’t mind. I did not, so he got out a canvas and began. This did not seem such a startling development, more an extension of a friendship that had grown over a period of years, meeting at private views, parties and over lunch. Portraiture seemed a natural next step.

From the subject’s point of view, sitting for Yeo after Freud has been an intriguing exercise in comparison and contrast. To begin with, there is a startling rise in painting speed between Freud and Yeo. Lucian lived life at a fast rate – not least in his driving, to take one of many examples – but he was an extremely slow painter. At the end of my first, three-hour sitting, he had produced a charcoal drawing on the canvas, then a few blobs of paint at the end of the next – which slowly expanded to cover the whole surface over the following eight months. Yeo, in contrast, had produced an exhibitable, if sketchy, image of me in the first two hours. In fact, if asked, I would have been inclined to leave it as it was: an animated record of two hours’ pleasant conversation, during which Jonathan managed to talk and paint at the same time (Lucian tended to do one or the other). I like the relaxed, half-smiling face that had appeared on the canvas. But the artist decided he wanted to take it further.

I was not consulted on this question, quite rightly, because in general the sitter is the last person who can judge a portrait properly. None of us knows what we truly look like. Of course, we see ourselves in the mirror, but that is a deceptive item that presents us reversed and usually with our features carefully arranged in a way that pleases us. Photographs may be better, but only if taken by a very good or lucky photographer. On the other hand, when the picture had reached a more completed state, Yeo was interested to know what my wife Josephine thought of it. She does have a good idea of what I look like, at least when I am with her (another paradox of personal appearance is that we tend to behave differently, and therefore look dissimilar, with a change of company).

The next session was quieter. I was tired, and thinking about a book I was in the process of finishing. My sittings with Yeo had a relaxed air. With Freud there was always gripping conversation, but also intensity. The sessions took place in a dark studio, after nightfall, with me in a pool of powerful artificial light. This new portrait was done in late June afternoons, with sun coming in from outside and – sometimes – music in the background. Nonetheless, I was quieter at the second sitting and the picture emerged more ‘resolved’, as painters say – that is, the forms were more firmly defined, as a result of which I seemed to have lost a bit of weight – but also more serious in mood. Yeo wondered out loud about the possibility of combining some of the expression of the first image with the greater clarity of the second. One of his aims is to include more than a single mood within a portrait. Emotional complexity, in fact, is an element we respond to in many arts. The distinction between a great jazz saxophonist and an ordinary one is that the former incorporates several feelings in a single sound: exhilaration and pain, tenderness and sorrow. Similarly, Yeo likes to try to combine several expressions from the facial kaleidoscope he sees before him in the studio.


‘There’s an intimacy to the bubble you are in when it’s two of you in a studio’, he says, ‘even though the picture’s going to be seen quite widely. I’m not going to tell the sitter’s story literally, so they can reveal a vulnerability or sadness or hardness or whatever, a complexity in their personality or past that makes the picture more interesting.’ If pressed, most of us would probably apply to ourselves the bold claim once made by the poet Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).’ That explains why a complicated image of a person that blends diverse qualities and emotions may strike us as truer and more interesting than an image that fixes a single moment.

The third sitting was cheery, although I had come straight from an exhibition of paintings by L. S. Lowry of overcast grey skies and gloomy industrial cities – a potential mood-dampener, but I had reacted in the opposite direction. Playing in the background, among other music, was a song by Billie Holiday, who was a peerless example of the ability to compress whole clusters of feeling into a single musical phrase. Yeo has a highly buoyant personality – an asset to a painter who has to keep the subject interested and engaged. On this occasion he seemed caught up in the act of painting, at one point flourishing several brushes at the same time, one held between his teeth in a slightly piratical fashion. At the end, the portrait seemed a satisfactory synthesis of the first two versions, so promising in fact that we started the evening with a glass of champagne. But that was not the end, or so the artist decided. Another sitting would finalise the image, or perhaps not.

A portrait is not a snapshot but a process, and finishing it – knowing when it has found its true, final form – is always a delicate matter.
Painting portraits of faces is an old activity. It was practised by the artists of Roman Egypt two thousand years ago – the so-called Fayum portraits that survive in great numbers – and stretches back in time far deeper than that. The very fact that portraiture has lasted so long indicates that it answers a perennial need. It is an ancient art, but one that up to now has constantly been renewed. The way Yeo tackles it is both traditional and high tech. He paints his sitters – as he did me – from life, but also often, if not always, uses photographic and computer techniques that have appeared only in the last two decades. He began by painting ‘dogmatically’, as he puts it, from life, then went through a phase of painting from photographs (by far the most common form of figurative painting these days). More recently, he has combined the two. ‘I take a thousand photographs of someone, which I can instantly call up on the computer. Then I whittle down from a thousand to, say, a dozen images that represent them in different moods. I then distort those on a computer to make them look more like a painting, and use those on days when people aren’t there.’

Portraiture had a low reputation during the height of modernism in the mid-twentieth century. As a genre, it had distinctly gone out of style among vanguard artists by the time that Jonathan Yeo was starting out on his career two decades ago. ‘“Portrait” wasn’t quite a dirty word’, he says, ‘but you’d try to avoid calling yourself a portrait painter if possible. It had such twee and retro connotations. It’s a funny thing. Painting portraits is something I think all serious painters do at some time, but to be pigeon-holed as a portrait painter was seen as unhelpful.’ The reason for this disfavour was perhaps that modernism in many of its manifestations was a reaction against naturalistic painting. True, several of the great figures of twentieth-century art were also notable painters of portraits – Picasso and Matisse among them. But they did so largely by finding brilliantly non-naturalistic equivalents for a given individual – so that Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter might find herself metamorphosed into a jug, though still somehow remain herself.

The main tradition of portraiture, however, consisted – and still consists – of close examination, and depiction, of the sitter in paint. This was impossible if you believed the modernist orthodoxy that art was ineluctably developing into abstraction (then perhaps into something that did not involve paint at all).

But not everyone accepted that theory of artistic manifest destiny. Postwar London, especially, harboured some stubbornly dissident figurative painters. Consequently, if portraiture was discouragingly unfashionable when Yeo was beginning, there was an inspiring example living in the same city, in Lucian Freud: a great living painter who based his entire life’s work on the principle of portraiture. Yeo knew Freud and revered him as an artist. ‘What Lucian could do better than any artist I’ve ever seen was capture the colours of a human being. Really see and just slightly exaggerate the colours in the world. Just amazing. His work is a sort of textbook of how to look at skin, and an eloquent demonstration of the limitations of photography.’

When Yeo began as an artist, he started painting portraits as a way to make a living. ‘People would say, “What do you really want to do?” and I’d answer, “I don’t know yet.” It was only after three or four years of doing portraits and enjoying it, but having at the back of my mind that I really ought to figure out my future career, that I took two or three months off one summer, got in the car and hit the road. After a few days I was getting my wife Shebah to sit still for me out under a tree so that I could paint her rather than a landscape or something else. It was then that I twigged that portraits were what I wanted to do most.’ He ‘diversifies’ a little, but his work does not stray far from this preoccupation with people, their bodies and above all their faces: the indexes of identity.