Saturday, 13 July 2013

Portrait - work in progress

97. Portrait studies by David Ferguson.

Three years ago I sat for several days to have my portrait drawn and I've been waiting patiently ever since to see the finished result. There is no point in hurrying or badgering the artist because he works at his own particular pace, in a process of application and removal, until he feels that he has said all that is possible. It fascinates me that as his images recede the character gains clarity. His art is of reduction and subtlety.

In April we took a short break to Cornwall to see how the portrait was progressing. Would we consider the work finished? Would it then be necessary to wrestle the picture away from him? Would I even like the look of it?
Paintings were stacked against the walls of his studio and a handsome framed portrait of another sitter was displayed on the easel. A beautiful face, beautifully painted.

David had studied at the Slade under William Coldstream, whose rigorous observation and painstaking method he employs. The dimensions of my head had been carefully noted, by means of artists' calipers, during the initial sittings. On this visit he asked me to take the same pose. "You've changed," he stated. I allowed myself a small smile but didn't state the obvious, that I am three years older. A Dorian Grey moment! I was pleased to find that he was working on two studies of my head and shoulders in different formats, one portrait, the other square. he took the framed work down from the easel and displayed the larger piece, the portrait format.
I was looking at my mother!
For the sitting I had worn a grey linen dress because the colour was neutral and the style simple, exposing shoulders and collar bones. But when I looked at the dress in the painting it took on a greater significance. Every year throughout my childhood my father had bought me a party dress. It had been his pleasure to take me into town to choose something lovely. After his death I cashed in an insurance bond that he had taken out at my birth and spent the money on the grey dress. When I brought it home my husband said, "Your father bought you that dress." How pleased I was to have worn it to the sittings.

I have shown these photographs of the two pieces of work in progress to artist friends and am surprised by their reactions. "It isn't you," they said. "He hasn't captured your liveliness." They see me most often in company when I am noisy and opinionated. This, I think, is what they mean by lively.
"I wouldn't want him to paint me!" said one.
But when members of the family look at the images they see both my mother and me, captured clearly.

98. Carved ebony 'crocodile' 25cm length.

This is just one of many small tourist carvings that we bought on holiday in Kenya over a quarter of a century ago. I had no idea at the time of purchase that it would prove to be such a useful object. It has been in almost daily use ever since, positioned on the piano just beyond the kitchen door within easy reach when we open the morning mail at the kitchen table. The crocodile is not only a humorous- looking object, it is also extremely well designed, fitting comfortably into the hand, the tail slicing neatly and efficiently through paper envelopes. Opening post without it feels a messy and unsatisfactory business.

99. Headstone for a dog. Sleeping lamb, concrete.

As a small child the first dog that I chose and called my own was a miniature black poodle. Because the breed was of French origin I called her Michelle, many years before the name was made popular by the Paul McCartney song. She was the perfect companion for a little girl because she was intelligent and responsive to teaching and had a curly coat that required endless grooming and styling. I was broken- hearted when she died. My father buried her in the garden and made the concrete lamb to mark her grave. It has traveled with me to various homes and been a marker for much-loved pets. It is not wearing too well, having lost a fair amount of definition over the years!
Now it is placed beneath the walnut tree in the garden of our present home and marks the grave of my adored smooth fox-terrier, Maisie. It was one of her favourite places to bask in the morning sunshine while keeping an eye on me as I worked among the vegetables.


  1. My first impressions were of Coldstream and Uglow. Personally I was taught the 'Dot and Carry' method; quite similar but much more fluid.

    The headstone is simply too precious to part with; lets hope it always does its intended work.

    1. That lump of concrete has been carted everywhere with me since childhood and I would hate to be parted from it. I can't imagine that it would mean a thing to anyone else.

  2. What nice thoughts on the passage of time. I have never met you in person of course but I always see you with a twinkle in your eye. Don't think the artist has quite captured that yet. Good Luck!

    1. I had an Italian boyfriend (a long time ago!) who told me that I had a wicked green. It took me a while to work out what he meant. "I've got a wicked green what?"

      It's hard to twinkle when you are sitting still for hours!