It was reported in the Sunday Telegraph of 26th November 2006, that the playwright Alan Bennett was ‘bamboozled’ by a portrait of himself by the artist Tom Wood. Wood had been commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in 1992 to paint Bennett for the permanent collection. The first effort was rejected by the Gallery’s trustees on the grounds that the sitter looked too old and lacked ‘the boyishness with which most of us seem to associate with him’. An upset Wood was given the task of having a second ‘go’ and the result now hangs in the NPG. All these shenanigans have recently come to light as has the original painting and the correspondence that went with it.
If you get a chance, have a look at these two paintings side by side (opening our 2 links above will allow you to do that):
- The second attempt, the one hanging in the Nation Portrait Gallery is a rather tired work of a bored looking man with an electric plug and a bag of apples on a table beside him. It’s characterless and I rather suspect that is how Tom Wood intended it to be.
- The first, and rejected work is an exciting and vibrant painting full of character and honesty. It shows Alan Bennett standing in a room with a large chandelier with low lighting that adds to the imagery of the scene. It’s a big picture and maybe the trustees were looking for something smaller. Or more likely something safer. For the work shows Bennett as he looks and this is the greatest crime a portrait painter can commit, especially as he is painting a National treasure.
The question I ask myself is who would want the job of portraying an iconic figure such as Bennett. It’s like being handed a poisoned chalice You only have to think back to the famous portrait of Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland that depicted an old, tired man, at the end of his life. Sutherland, one of the 20th Century giants of painting, was vilified and the picture eventually destroyed. The inherent dishonesty of showing people as they would wish to be seen rather than how they actually look is symptomatic of today’s society and I for one deplore that. I would go to see the first work by Tom Wood, now I assume consigned to a basement somewhere, but wild horses would not drag me to the second boring effort.
Bennett wrote to the Gallery stating that he could not understand the props on the table next to him and opined the thought that the plug was a veiled reference to his sexuality being AC/DC. I rather like to think that Tom Wood is using a visual metaphor employed by all master painters saying ‘Plug yourself in, switch on and get a life!
We may never know.
©21st Century Gallery Ltd