Be nice to your portrait artist…

In a lesson to sitters to be nice to their portrait painters, renowned British portrait artist, Daphne Todd, discussed hidden meanings and items that portrait artists have put in their paintings, when speaking on a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s “Today Programme”.

From the shadow of Monica Lewinsky’s dress in the recently unveiled Nelson Shanks portrait of President Clinton, conversation moved to the horns that Todd admitted will appear above someone’s head in years to come in one of her own works.

David Sanderson in his Times’ article entitled: “Top portrait painter takes devilish revenge on rude sitter”,  joked the “x-ray machines are being ordered. Just where are those devil horns?”

Daphne Todd was the first female president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and a winner of one of the most prestigious art prizes in the world, the BP Portrait Award. She is regarded as one of the UK’s leading portraitists, and she has painted some of those from “the upper echelons of nobility, academia and the arts world”. On the BBC programme she confessed that hidden underneath the hair of one of her subjects lies a “devilish surprise” that will make clear her dislike of the man when it is eventually revealed.

Daphne Todd said she this came about when she decided “to wreak her revenge on an ‘obnoxious young gentleman’ whose portrait she had been commissioned to paint”. She said:

“I painted a pair of horns… I painted hair on top but in future years these horns will bleed through… He was rude really… I had a four-hour round trip over the Christmas period in the early hours of darkness to get there for first light. And then they can’t be bothered to get out of bed.”

However, she refused to reveal who this notorious person was, laughing: “Oh, I would not do the dirty on them… That’s not right.” Daphne Todd did admit that it would all be revealed, in time:  “It may be 50 years or 100 years, who knows. But they are there if you x-ray it.”

When further questioned,  the artist did provide some clues, that it was: “at a time when she could not afford to walk away from a commission,” it was a “young gentleman”, who, at least at the time of the sitting, had hair.

Todd’s biographer, Jenny Pery, recalled a conversation with the artist when she spoke of an difficult unknown sitter, part of a double portrait so the portrait in question could be of a husband and wife. “She was travelling a lot for the portrait,” she said of Todd’s journeys to paint the “devil”.

Daphne Todd further added:

“They can jolly well turn up on time. It is just extremely bad manners. A lot of people treat portrait painters as tradesmen but quite often they are serious artists of extraordinary national importance.

“I think people should treat their portrait painter properly… We have got little powers that we can deploy.”

This all follows in the rich historical tradition of hidden messages in art: Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait hides a tiny figure, presumably the artist, waving back at the viewer.  Famously, Hans Holbein the Younger continues the discussion by his placement of a memento mori at the feet of The Ambassadors: when viewed from high on the right side of the picture or low on the left side, the image is clearly a anamorphic perspective depcition of a skull.

Shortly after Daphne Todd’s confession of her own little artistic subterfuge, another portrait painter, Mark Roscoe, admitted to including one himself in the painting of Bill Oddie, the TV wildlife presenter: it was “the shadowy form of a bird – a long-tailed tit – with its name in Latin alongside, in a pointed reference to the television presenter supposedly being long in the tooth”.

David Lister, in the Independent, stated:

“My experience with the brilliant, if now notorious, Daphne Todd taught me that there are artistic imperatives for the sitter as much as for the painter in portrait sessions.

“First, avoid falling asleep, which can be surprisingly tricky when you are sitting still for three hours at a time. It might appear a little rude.

“Second, only speak when you’re spoken to. Artists aren’t keen on their concentration being interrupted.

“Third, realise that all questions put to you are all a subtle part of the artistic process, and your answers, both in tone and content, will somehow inform the finished work.

“Lastly, if you are in their studio, be aghast at the astounding talent the works on the walls show.

“Otherwise, like the “young gentleman” and Bill Oddie, you might end up being punished for posterity.”

Further reading

Related artist’s websites