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Jonathan Yeo: The portrait painter on his new exhibition at The Laing

As an exhibition of portraits by Jonathan Yeo opens in Newcastle, the artist talks to David Whetstone about his life and work

John Millard Jonathan Yeo visiting the Laing Art Gallery with his latest exhibition
Jonathan Yeo visiting the Laing Art Gallery with his latest exhibition

As Jonathan Yeo explains the relationship between portrait painter and subject, there’s the sense of being watched. Prince Philip, Stephen Fry, the Duchess of Cornwall, David Walliams and Lily Cole are among those scrutinising us from the walls.

This big room at the Laing Art Gallery has been colonised by the famous and powerful who feature in Jonathan Yeo Portraits, an exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery.

If there’s one thing most of these celebrated faces share, it’s their benign expression. At least some of these people must be a bit temperamental but nearly all appear relaxed and Prince Philip is positively twinkling.

I am finding out why. Jonathan Yeo, son of Conservative politician Tim Yeo, is a brilliant painter but also a brilliant talker, spilling anecdotes nineteen to the dozen.

This must derive from the portrait painter’s need to keep high achieving and fidgety subjects entertained and sitting still for long periods.

© Jonathan Yeo 2014 Lily Cole by Jonathan Yeo
Lily Cole by Jonathan Yeo

Jonathan says he was able to polish his technique when painting a portrait of Michael Parkinson a few years ago. ‘Parky’, craggy features arranged into a kindly gaze, passed on tips for handling tricky customers learned during his chat show heyday.

Of Prince Philip, Jonathan recalls: “There are portraits showing him as a buffoon but what I experienced was someone who was very intelligent but gets bored easily and so has to make life interesting for himself.

“He loves arguments. He’s happy to argue about anything and there’s nothing on the planet he doesn’t have a view on. He’ll let you speak first and then take the opposing view, just for sport.

“Having grown up with a politician in the family, I was used to that and found it quite enjoyable. I really liked him, I have to say, but I could see how things could be taken the wrong way if you weren’t of the same persuasion.”

A measure of Jonathan’s success, as he admits, is that he is now in a position to pick subjects rather than wait to be commissioned. The portrait of the Duchess of Cornwall, which you can imagine she must have been delighted with, resulted from a personal request.

“I did approach her and it took a while but she agreed to sit. I had met her a few times and she struck me as someone who was down to earth, given the madness and the grandeur of the job she’s in. I found this to be the case and she was also intelligent and funny.”

John Millard Jonathan Yeo visiting the Laing Art Gallery with his latest exhibition
Jonathan Yeo visiting the Laing Art Gallery with his latest exhibition
 

Extraordinarily, Jonathan Yeo is self-taught. He says that as a small child he suffered from attention deficit disorder. “I was always in trouble at school but I found that one of the ways to concentrate was to draw something.

“I liked doing faces and I used to do caricatures of the teachers to make my friends laugh. That was my way of getting through a lot of the lessons.

“I was at a school which was very academic and art wasn’t considered something you could make a career out of.”

After school his parents persuaded him – “quite sensibly”, he suggests – that he should study for a degree.

“I ended up doing film studies but I got bored and carried on wanting to paint.”

Then he fell ill with the blood cancer, Hodgkin’s disease. It gave him, says Jonathan, a “flash of perspective”, the realisation at the age of 25 that it would be daft to waste time on “a half decent career in something sensible”.

While recovering, he studied paintings in Tate Britain and tinkered with different styles, borrowing from cubism and abstract expressionism and studying the works of Lucian Freud and Wyndham Lewis among others.

Then, in 1993, he painted a portrait of Bishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid campaigner. Along with Bruce Kent, leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Huddleston was a rather unlikely friend of Jonathan’s father.

Jonathan recalls that Bishop Huddleston was very pleased with the portrait, with its cubist influences.

Jonathan Yeo Helena Bonham Carter, 2013, by Jonathan Yeo
Helena Bonham Carter, 2013, by Jonathan Yeo

“The anti-apartheid movement used it as a Christmas card and it went all over the place. That was the turning point. I then got enough of a trickle of commissions to enable me to spend the next five years basically learning on the job.”

Nowadays he is a celebrity himself and hugely in demand. Acknowledging this, he has included a self-portrait among the salon-style artful jumble of paintings on one wall. Although here you will also find paintings of his wife, Shebah, and daughters, Tabitha and Yasmin.

And here you will also find evidence of his sense of fun and desire not to be dictated to by the worlds of art and celebrity. Hanging next to Prince Philip is a small portrait of the cockney caretaker of an apartment block Jonathan once lived in.

Having now painted umpteen actors, artists, politicians and notable people, Jonathan has learnerd a few things about art and human nature.

“People are funny about age in pictures,” he says. “I think often they see a portrait as an unhappy reflection of where they’re at. In fact, there’s a thing where people are so obsessed with how they look relative to their age that they become blind to everything else.

“I want to capture their real character in a painting but I can distract them by making them look four or five years younger than they are.”

Sienna Miller, 2010, by Jonathan Yeo
Sienna Miller, 2010, by Jonathan Yeo

Rupert Murdoch, painted in 2005 before the phone hacking scandal, looks more saintly than he might do portrayed today. His portrait hangs next to a sunny one of Rebekah Wade, done in 2002 when she was editing Murdoch’s News of the World.

“I thought it would be fun to put those together,” smiles Jonathan, recalling that he found Murdoch “fascinating company but slightly tricky as he gets bored easily”.

In the same corner hangs Tony Blair, sporting a poppy in his lapel. It was done in 2007, right at the end of his period as Prime Minister. “He was riding high but it was becoming obvious that he would be remembered for the foreign policy stuff.

“You think, how can I reference war without it being heavy handed? I really didn’t know. Then he came in with a poppy because it was about this time of year. Half way through he said, ‘Should I take this off? Would that be helpful?’ I said no but I could always paint it out if he didn’t want it there.”

The poppy remained, projecting different meanings to every viewer of the painting.

Arguably US President George W Bush came off worse that same year.

After a portrait was commissioned by the White House and then cancelled, Jonathan was miffed. He came up with idea of portraying him anyway in the unfamiliar medium of collage – but using torn-up top shelf magazines to provide the flesh tones.

“I don’t get angry about things when they don’t work out but this had been an official thing and I had put quite a lot of work into it.

“I started doing this portrait as a bit of a joke and it took ages to do but it struck more of a a chord than I expected.

Portrait of education activist Malala Yousafzai by Jonathan Yeo
Portrait of education activist Malala Yousafzai by Jonathan Yeo

“I’d thought I might send it to the White House anyway to see if they would put it on the wall without noticing but then Banksy’s dealer said, ’Why don’t you let me show that?’ It sort of went viral.”

The Bush portrait was followed by others in similar vein (lucky Hugh Hefner, Tiger Woods and Paris Hilton).

At the Laing it resides in a separate room with a special warning to the young and sensitive. Jonathan points out that he has now drawn a line under this particular form of portraiture, joking that gathering the raw materials was earning him an unwanted reputation.

Jonathan Yeo Portraits is on until February 1. There is an admission charge.

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