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The portrait as legacy by Art & Soul

January 25, 2021

The portrait as legacy by Art & Soul

'Art & Soul' - Stella Tooth - is an award-winning artist and drawing tutor at the National Portrait Gallery, who has portrayed well-known news broadcasters from the BBC’s Kate Adie to George Alagiah. She is resident artist at the iconic music venue, the Half Moon Putney, where her artwork, which aims to capture the excitement of performing live, is on show. As an ex print journalist and BBC/Sky News PR, storytelling is central to her art. Her blog looks at portrait art and musician art at a time when the UK’s culture sector, gravely impacted by the pandemic, is demonstrating its immense power to heal.

Stella Tooth Resident Artist Half Moon Putney blogs as Art & Soul

Portraiture - major art movement of 2020

In these extraordinary times of the epidemic, when separation from loved ones and friends makes us yearn to spend more time with them, it’s fascinating to note that the big art movement of 2020 was portraiture.


Oxford portrait artist Tom Croft on Instagram offered to paint a free portrait of an NHS worker from photographs to thank them – and encouraged others, including some of the country’s top portraitists, to do the same.  There followed an outflowing of thanks under the hashtag #portraitsfornhsheroes, in which I look part, painting an NHS paramedic called Helen Chiverton who responds in an ambulance to 999 calls.  It also gave me a chance to do something which is integral to all my work: to tell her story in words.

Click here to read Helen's story.

For those who managed to enter their portraits in time, there was the opportunity to be part of an online exhibition, a book which aimed to raise money for NHS Charities Together.  NHS portraits even appeared on the big screens in Piccadilly Circus!  And Tom Croft, deservedly was awarded the Points of Light award by the PM.

For portrait artists like me, for whom portraying sitters in my home studio or in their homes has become impossible due to lockdown restrictions, seeing other portraitists rising to the challenge of working purely from photographs provided by NHS workers - or via Zoom, a means of video conferencing few of us had even heard of before – was liberating!

We live in the age of photography whose forte is capturing a moment in time, where a drawn portrait or a portrait in oils or acrylic conversely captures a life lived up to that moment.  Portraitists adapted by using several source photographs, or Zoom, to help see the passage of emotion on a human face over time.  Some had only eyes, hair and gesture to work with to capture emotion, as their subjects' other features were obscured behind PPE.

Skylark Galleries’ Heather Tobias painted masked characters early in lockdown wondering, at that time, presciently, if there would soon be designer masks. She said, back then, that she was still looking for the perfect mask because her glasses kept steaming up! Still no solution to that!

Click here to see Heather’s characters.

Musicians in lockdown

Musician in lockdown Marky Dawson by Stella Tooth. £310.

As I also portray musicians, I began a series of artworks looking at how performers, prevented from gigging live and busking, were keeping up people's spirits by entertaining them online through platforms such as facebook's socially distancing fest.

Click here to read more about my lockdown musician art.

Projecting a person's image through time 

All of these artworks fulfil a time-honoured function of portraiture, of providing a legacy of projecting a person’s image through time.  As the artist’s eye has been over every single inch of the canvas, or other support, then the viewer can look at it for far longer than any photograph.  But there’s an added twist.  These lockdown portraits  – like the photography on which so many are based – also project this pandemic era into the future through the faces of the men and women they portray.  In other words, they capture the zeitgeist.

It's no surprise to me that portraiture then – rather than landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes, abstract or any other wonderful genre of art – should have been at the centre of our lockdown art experience.  In it we seek what we have had to forgo: the warmth of human connection in sparkling eyes above a mask, an assenting nod or another gesture of friendship.

And pet portraits appear to have had a renaissance too.  Just as we crave human company, our increased working from home and decrease in commuting, has led us to wonder if it's time to get a pet.  A cat may provide those shielding alone at home with companionship; a dog company as we exercise and discover more about our local communities. 

Pet portraits

In March, at the start of lockdown, rescue pet rehoming figures soared.  By September, almost inevitably, Battersea Dogs and Cats home was launching virtual puppy training after owners admitted having lockdown pet regrets due to training problems...  

Skylark Galleries has two commissionable portrait artists in myself and Claire Thorogood. And Claire and I also offer pet portraits if that re-homed pooch or kitten has won your heart.  Click here if you're interested to find out how to commission a human or pet portrait - and how much it will cost!

Radish pet portrait by Claire Thorogood

Radish pet portrait painting by Claire Thorogood

There can be occasions, of course, when you might like to have a portrait on your walls of someone entirely unknown to you, perhaps because they evoke an emotion, like Linda Samson's thought-provoking ceramic art.

Starry night 3 by Linda Samson £800.

Starry night 3 painted ceramic by Linda Samson

And Ruty Benjamini’s seated figurine shows no idealisation of the human form - just a normal woman I can relate to.  A woman like Ruty -  or me.

Figurine on a white cube by Ruty Benjamini £265

Figurine on a white cube ceramic art by Ruty Benjamini

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