YEO! An Interview in GQ Magazine
Self-taught artist Jonathan Yeo fought fashion, snobbery and illness to become one of the world's most in-demand portraitists. Now, to mark the launch of his new book and an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, GQ talks to the outsider who helped make figurative painting cool for the first time in generations.
Jonathan Yeo is just back from a whirlwind visit to the Venice Biennale, where he was filmed for an edition of BBC's The Culture Show to be broadcast ahead of his first solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery next month. "They wanted to see me out of the studio, to give a flavour of what the art world has become," he explains. "I mean the globalisation. Most business now takes place at the fairs, all over the world. At Miami Basel, everyone is at Soho House and you end up spending days chatting to other artists on the beach - it's unique and it's where we all talk."
The 42-year-old Yeo clearly enjoys the travel, parties and endless conversation that come with membership of the global art gang, but he is less thrilled by what clings to its coat tails: the cosmetically enhanced, international nouveaux riches drawn to the ever-increasing glitz and potential for social elevation.
"I saw a few glam people it would take a huge effort to see in London, but there were far too many bridge-and-tunnellers at Venice this year. Their mode of transport might be yachts, but they're tourists, not art world. Normally I wouldn't mind, it's par for the course in Miami, but Venice is not a commercial fair..."
Most people would agree that it's preferable to look at art with other art lovers rather than have your view blocked by an oligarch's entourage, but for Yeo these moments with fellow practitioners, writers, dealers and curators are making up for the years not spent at art school, and he really doesn't want them ruined. It has taken Yeo a long time to be accepted by the London art scene and, interestingly, it is key players like Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Jay Jopling that have welcomed him into the fold. "Jay is passionate about what he does and if he's in the mood to give me advice, I listen," says Yeo. "He was one of the first to see that what I'm doing is contemporary and not old-fashioned. Jay is not susceptible to fashion."
Now, of course, since it has been unfashionable for so long, portrait painting is back and Yeo is plagued with requests from art students for internships at his studio. "Figurative is in," he laughs, "so the kids should start painting abstracts, if they want to be edgy. The art world acts like a fast-moving fashion business. You can go round Frieze surfing the current trends like some artists do, or you can stick to your guns, like Grayson [Perry] did and people will eventually catch up." He cites Perry's famous quote, on winning the Turner Prize, that people were more shocked by his pottery than his transvestism. An ability to function outside the art world has been central to Yeo's success, forcing him to focus on his work. "By not going to art school, I thought I'd missed out, but now I realise I didn't. There's something of the school playground about the art world, people trying to be either cool or clever or both. I was preoccupied with learning to paint. I spent every day studying one artist at a time: Stanley Spencer, [Georges] Braque, whoever. I worked out how they did it, and each time a residue of their style would remain. I didn't have a style then, I just loved faces."
Educated at Westminster alongside his friend Giles Coren, Yeo became ill with lymphatic cancer in his early twenties and the decision to become an artist in the face of well-meaning family opposition was part of his recovery. "I had to do it alone; portraiture was a dead tradition. But once I began painting people, I realised that being with my subjects was what amused and inspired me." His first portrait was of anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston and he went on to paint a series of politicians including Tony Blair (twice), William Hague, John Major and David Cameron but stopped because he didn't want to be "pigeon-holed". Despite being the son of Conservative MP Tim Yeo, a politician whose high-profile career has been dogged by scandal, Jonathan Yeo is not party political and became the first official cross-party campaign artist, for the 2001 general election, at the request of Labour MP Tony Banks. But his distancing from politics in general is not surprising. Tim Yeo hit the headlines when he fathered a daughter with his Tory councillor mistress, Julia Stent, in 1993. His parents' marriage survived and Claudia is very much "part of the family", says Jonathan. Recently, Tim Yeo has again made the news, accused of coaching a GB Railfreight executive before he gave evidence to the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, of which Yeo was chairman. This story broke after our interview, but I imagine the family is as supportive as it has always been; Jonathan's sister was also ill as a young woman and Tim Yeo has publicly thanked his wife and the NHS for the "second chances" they have bestowed on him.
Painful as all this must have been, the knowledge of his physical suffering and his experience in the public eye means Yeo's A-list sitters feel they can trust him. He has painted so many celebrities that the list is one long name-drop: Rupert Murdoch, Kevin Spacey, Sienna Miller, David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Nicole Kidman, Prince Philip. Yeo is decidedly normal, in spite of his friends, upbringing and marriage to former Hollyoaks actor Shebah Ronay, daughter of Edina, granddaughter of Egon: charming, urbane, down-to-earth and kind. People who study people - psychotherapists and so on - often say that their greatest challenge is learning how to be ordinary and this must also be crucial to portrait painters. A good therapist has the ability to relate to others no matter how different their circumstances, to hear the narrative behind the words, and not to judge. Portrait painters, too, must enable the characters and personal histories of their subjects to emerge, establishing a psychological space of safety and trust in which this gradual revelation can happen.
"There's no set way of doing it," says Yeo over coffee at his South Kensington studio that once belonged to sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. "[Lucian] Freud's huge popularity made people think that you have to do it his way, with hours and hours of sitting. But in fact Freud was not a great draughtsman and he invented a way of working to compensate for that. He started in the middle and would run out of space - I imagine that's why his portrait of the Queen was so small; too few sittings and he'd only just begun. But he saw colour more clearly and brilliantly than any artist that ever lived. What is consistent in my method," he adds, "is my lack of consistency. Things can be awkward at first, the sitter exposed to bright lights and me staring at them holding pencil and paper. I forget how it must be for them. But I get them talking about themselves. You can assume that if they're posing, there's a level of eccentricity. I want to feed as much information as I can into the work, things you wouldn't get from a snap."
Many of Yeo's subjects can't spare the hours required for a traditional approach. "I hung out with Blair and Murdoch on their turf. It's illuminating to spend time in their environments - you need this to work out who they are. I take photos, make drawings and then come to the studio and paint by myself. They'll come and sit towards the end and you tell their narrative through their face or posture."
Yeo is also publishing a book of his work, The Many Faces Of Jonathan Yeo, and the studio feels crowded, not just with the paintings themselves but with conversations held. "I enjoy the company of creatives," he says. "You identify with them, it can shine a light on your own creative process." Frames and canvases are stacked wherever there is space; a half-finished portrait of Idris Elba gazes down at us from an easel. "Idris is this huge, powerful bloke from Hackney. Because he was in The Wire and has just played [Nelson] Mandela, it's easy to forget he's local. Idris is on the cusp of massive success and it's nice to get people before they're jaded; they're confident and at their most creative. Or, I like to paint people who've been at it so long, they've got layers of intrigue." Helena Bonham Carter stares out from a mass of faces, intense, ageless and disturbingly pretty. She is an old friend - "it was one of those things we've been talking about for years and never got round to" - whereas Damien Hirst is a new one. Yeo hands me a painting of Hirst wearing a dry suit, sitting in a vitrine. "The dry suit was his idea," says Yeo. "It's what he wore when he was working with formaldehyde, so it seemed natural to paint him in one of his tanks. I like the ambiguity - is he in there as an object, or is he working on something? It was strange to paint him without his glasses - he's had laser-eye surgery and they're gone. I like painting glasses, but it's good to see his eyes, so intelligent and mischievous." Hirst looks comfortable in his skin, serious but on the brink of having a laugh. "He loves playing up to the image of the dark overlord of the Nineties art world," says Yeo.
At this point, his phone rings and he begins a conversation about a commission for a portrait of the Colombian president. Plans are made with the ambassador and Yeo turns to me, his face a mixture of amusement and faint embarrassment. "This is the unforeseen result of fame," he says. "This guy, the first for generations to tackle the drug barons, and he's taking a risk with me. He's not sure what he'll get. Still, he's got bigger things to worry about. Most of my other subjects aren't likely to get assassinated any time soon."
Yeo himself pushed some dangerous buttons with his series of porn works, which began with his portrait of George W Bush. Viewed from afar, they appeared to be more of his classical celebrity portraits, but Yeo's "paintings" were collages made from Seventies porn mags. "I had to use vintage magazines because the skin tones were real, rather than fake-tanned," he says. Seen close-up, they were pure pornography, but despite the clues he included in each work - a hand job, fellatio or a vaginal close-up - some people still missed the joke. "Jeremy Clarkson was given a painting that hung on his wall for several months," says Yeo. "He had no idea, until he heard his daughters talking about it." Aside from the humour and the trickery involved, Yeo was making a serious point: that our media is so saturated with porn, we can't see it anymore. "The Bush portrait was a straightforward two fingers up at the Republicans," he says, "but I carried on for a reason - the birth of my second daughter. I made the porn-leaf wallpaper to underline the subtlety with which we are bombarded with these images, and their ubiquity."
Other victims of his porn phase were Dennis Hopper, Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard. "I made Mary's top lip out of one, big, black cock," he says. "Cliff and Mary are on loan to Soho House LA. No one knows who they are in the States; one of the waiters told me they were the owner's parents. This is how narratives start."
Not everybody thought the porn was a good idea but it was helpful in reaching a wider public and encouraged the art world to accept that he wasn't "just" a portrait painter. Collage also freed him up conceptually and served to remind him that painting was his first love; he began to look at "new ways into portraiture, how we see each other and use our bodies and faces", by painting bodies undergoing cosmetic surgical procedures. "I heard that in the US, some babies aren't bonding with their mothers because their faces don't move properly. One face lift can be OK, but no one stops there, and if you go on yanking the muscles they move in the wrong places when you respond to something. The face is the one part of the body where muscles are there to communicate."
For someone who became an artist because he loves faces, this must be disturbing to paint yet fascinating to witness: Yeo spent a lot of time watching cosmetic surgeons at work and describes them as "drawing on the body like an artist and reconfiguring the body like a sculptor." His surgical paintings are about where we are in our evolution, he explains. "In a portrait, I'm trying to channel an individual; the surgical works are telling a wider story. Vanity is so powerful; people don't mind bad surgery in some parts of the world because it shows you've spent the money."
That observation rings as true at Frieze art fair or in LA or as it does in Belarus. "It's all about looking the same, joining a club." he says. "Art 'n' surgery, that's the link. In 200 years, they'll probably pop a pill and look 22 until they die of old age. When people look back at this thing, so expensive and risky, it will be seen as barbaric, like the Horrible Histories."
Meanwhile, he has returned to portraits for his NPG show (11 September 2013 to 5 January 2014) which will include "some old stuff and a lot of new works. I've moved out of my comfort zone; I'm looking at different ways of painting people. I like quirky and interesting."
Is he, as the title of his book suggests, painting himself while he's painting his subjects? "Probably. I want to tell a story. It's the same as the art I like to look at - I like conceptual art if it tells enough of a story to keep you interested." Finally, he says, he is able to admit to himself that he is a conceptual artist and therefore a contender on the international stage. "Only hard-core collectors buy my difficult stuff, it's not pretty. But I acknowledge that there are concepts behind my work. I used to think you either were or weren't a conceptual artist but now I think if there are no ideas, it's just illustration."