What the artist sees, and the sitter reveals
13 July, 2017 — By John Gulliver
Valerie Wiffen working on her portrait of Cllr Flick Rea
IT was a combination of a masterclass in portraiture – and a bit of a talk therapy session.
I don’t quite know which I enjoyed most.
At the centre was the veteran Lib Dem councillor Flick Rea, perched worryingly high on a raised platform with a black cloth choreographed as background. And painting her with an intensity I found seductive was the eminent artist Valeria Wiffen who at 74 is entering the senior class herself.
I was among 25 spectators – a collection of students at Hampstead School of Art, the scene of the sitting, and members of the public – earnestly following Valerie’s racy commentary as she painted Flick’s concentrated stare for three hours.
Often I worried about the safety of Flick sitting near the edge of the platform with her left arm in a sling and a crutch lying against her side. She had fractured her arm and injured her leg in a recent fall near West Hampstead station in West End Lane.
I had gone thinking of similar masterclasses I’ve seen by pianists and concert singers but it was nothing like that – it was more a long session of the painter dipping in and out of a conversation with the audience, revealing more about her emotional life than I had expected.
Artist and sitter with the finished picture
“It’s the only artistic practice that gives you a licence to stare – you could never do this with anyone else except perhaps a lover,” quipped Valerie.
But she decried painters who copied subjects from photographs while accepting that nowadays that was the practice because “no one seemed to have the time to sit”. Her own well-known portraits of the financier Sir Sigmund Sternberg and Prince Philip all emerged after long sittings.
Then she talked about her own start in life – beginning at the Walthamstow School of Art in the late 1950s and winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where along the way she worked with Ian Drury, the pop musician, film director Peter Greenaway, inventor James Dyson, David Hockney – and here she paused to tell how she had inherited his “locker” to discover a lot of “gentlemen’s magazines” – and Peter Blake who, she emphasised, was a “great teacher” especially of draughtsmanship. Name dropping? Hardly, just bits of her own life that seemed to bubble to the surface in a session that a psychoanalyst would have loved.
Caught up in the “therapy” part of the session, Flick suddenly unloosened and talked about her past as an actress, and how it had prepared her for many different jobs, among them as a bar lady where, when younger, she used to “lean” on the bar and show her “rather large cleavage … and I got more tips than you can possibly believe”. Well, that fitted in with something Valerie had mentioned, that a sitting could become a bit like a “confessional”.
And what did Flick think of the finished job? It made her look a bit “ferocious” and a bit like her “mother”! A professional to the end…
I couldn’t work out what was in Flick’s mind. What had Valerie seen in her face?