‘Gayle’ by Robin Lee
At his trial Socrates is reported to have said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’; it might be equally true to say that the unexamined face is not worth seeing. A face is the antithesis of the inanimate objects that surround us. The slightest change in one’s features can communicate an emotion or a changing mood. Whilst a smile can be an expression of genuine joy it can just as easily be seen as a malicious smirk or a sarcastic grin.
Every time we glance in a mirror we see ourselves through our own unique prism, seeing only those features which we choose to see. Are those dark circles under the eyes getting worse? Do I look haggard? Is the detox making my skin look better or worse? Our perceptions can change within seconds based on a new, previously unseen flaw or the change of mood expressed through our features. An alternative channel to reflect upon ourselves and, crucially, to see how we are viewed by others is through the time-honoured medium of the portrait. Whereas a standard mirror presents you exactly as you are, a portrait will contain as much of the artist’s personality and style as the subjects.
Some sitters will drop a subtle (or even a not too subtle hint) that they expect a gratifying portrayal of themselves. Often the painter, in the hope of flattering his patron and with an eye on future commissions, will use his skills and expertise to present the most pleasing and attractive representation.
‘Andy’ by Robin Lee
A rarer breed is the subject who wishes to be represented as true to life. The most notable example being Oliver Cromwell, Leader of the Parliamentary Army during the English Civil War and subsequently Lord Protector of the Commonwealth who, according to a contemporary account noted by Horace Walpole, gave his painter, Sir Peter Lely the following instructions:
“…I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”
This has become known to posterity in the phrase ‘warts and all’, used in a sense wider than just painting, to mean the inclusion of all faults or other unpleasant facts.
In a similar vein (warts aside), the contemporary portrait of the high priestess of feminism, Germaine Greer, by Paula Rego, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery appealed to Greer precisely because of its honesty. She said “A portrait that is kind is condescending. The last thing I would want is for Paula to condescend to me, and it’s the last thing she would think of doing.”
‘Peter’ by Robin Lee
Cromwell’s sentiment is very much evident, from the painter’s perspective, in a new exhibition of paintings titled ‘Clocks’ by Robin Lee currently showing at the Tapestry Gallery in London. Lee’s focus is in capturing an honest representation of his subjects. His intention is not to flatter his sitters but rather to bring out their quirks and character through his style of painting. One can appreciate that it might be difficult to find sitters prepared to be subjected to such scrutiny and many of works on show are of Lee’s trusted friends who were willing to be cast on canvas.
He admits they “were rarely flattered by the results but loved them all the same”. Looking around the exhibition, one can see why the subjects loved them. There is an honesty and integrity which shines through the large canvasses combined with a sense of exuberance through the judicious use of pinks and blues alongside the flesh tones.
Lee has also painted people with disfigurements and who are less often captured in portraits such as Raj, who Lee met in Varanasi in India, and who was born with a cleft palette, a hair lip that had never been treated and the attendant crooked teeth. One of the most arresting works is a representation of Howard, a baker in Leeds who, one morning after a night shift, had his nose bitten off by a dog while walking home across a park. The painting is actually a self-portrait of Lee amended to take account of the injuries suffered by Howard.
‘Raj’ by Robin Lee
‘Howard’ by Robin Lee
All the paintings in the show were completed during October 2012 and none took more than two hours to complete; the immediacy cutting through all extraneous factors and concentrating on communicating the essence of the sitter. Lee has made a time-lapse video demonstrating how he works (see below).
The exhibition runs until the Thursday 14 March 2013 and there are plans for pop-up shows in locations around London.
‘Clocks’ by Robin Lee, Tapestry Gallery, 51-52 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 4SH