Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Tuesday 23 January 2018

What Lies Beneath: Girl in a Liberty Dress by Clara Drummond

Oil on board courtesy of the artist

Girl in a Liberty Dress by Clara Drummond
Girl in a Liberty Dress by Clara Drummond

Niall MacMonagle

In London’s National Portrait Gallery, faces, looking at faces, see different shapes, ages, colouring, moods.

This year’s BP Portrait Award attracted 2,557 artists from 80 countries and Clara Drummond’s portrait of friend and fellow artist Kirsty Buchanan was overall winner.

“The fashion for portraits waxes and wanes but painting has an astonishing continuity. The simplicity of pigment, oil and canvas or wood makes it more powerful than any other forms of representation. We will always be interested in other human beings, what differentiates us, what we have in common, across time and cultures.” For Drummond, the 2,000-year-old, anonymous Egyptian Fayum portraits, “are absolutely alive and true and recognisable to us today”.

Photograph or painting? “A painting is an accumulation of moments over time. I find it very moving, for example, to see Rembrandt’s brushmarks and adjustments and feel the immediacy of his decisions made hundreds of years ago. I do not feel the touch of the maker when I look at a photograph.”

This portrait, triangularly composed, took four to five weeks and began as “a very dark painting with strong contrasts. I gradually drew it back, it became lighter and lighter until I reached a point where it was too delicate to carry on, so I had to stop.” Kirsty, “graceful, like a hawk or a deer”, is a frequent sitter. Those intelligent, grey eyes look away. Our eyes see a self-contained, private, thoughtful individual. Preferring to paint people “who identify themselves with their thoughts, ideas and the things they make rather than with their outward appearance”, artist and sitter discuss Hilma af Klint, Roy Oxlade’s essays, Thomas Wyatt, Elizabeth I, Walter Benjamin, Celtic history.

A residency in “wild and beautiful and magical” Cill Rialaig, County Kerry, in 2013 was liberating. “My materials went missing in the post so I drew with burnt branches of gorse bushes and painted with the two earth-coloured oil paints I brought with me.” As winner, she will now paint a portrait for the gallery’s collection. Who? She hopes Ronald Blythe, “one of the most moving and truthful writers”. And her favourite portrait of all time? Rembrandt’s self-portrait aged 51. “Because my heart stopped when I saw it.”

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