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Jeremy King

The Independent; Portrait of Jeremy King Esq
oil on canvas
182.2 x 90.8 cm
private collection

Jeremy King
61 x 30.5 cm
National Portrait Gallery

Jeremy King
pencil and wash
37.6 x 24.1 cm
National Portrait Gallery

Jeremy King's is the longest portrait I have done, in both senses. He is a tall man and my initial plan to paint a life-size standing figure had to be abandoned because such a canvas, given some air around him, would have been unmanoeuvrable in my studio: even with him seated a surprisingly tall picture results. The picture also took an extraordinarily long time (Autumn '86 to Autumn '88). I do not usually keep an accurate count of sittings, but, since on this occasion I took a polaroid photo after each visit, I know there were at least fifty-five sittings not including the half dozen or so in which I made the preliminary drawings and an initial oil study.

It was wonderful to have as with Adrian Mitchell a subject so committed to the task. It allowed me to let the picture grow without ever seeking makeshift solutions: the work could develop its references in its own time and out of our conversations.

Jeremy is one of the owners of my favourite London restaurant, le Caprice: therefore the first 'prop' introduced to make the studio partake of his world was a chair from that restaurant. Later this was followed by another so that one is behind him and the other in front while he himself is sitting on my usual sitter's chair. Why this is so I'm not quite certain though I always thought it critical and had much trouble (and many changes of mind) in order to find a 'speaking' alignment between them.

Somehow the studio has ended up with a random assortment of Royal commemorative mugs and it is in one or other of these that a sitter gets his tea or coffee. Since Jeremy had the habit of placing it with unerring compositional taste on the floor beside him it occurred to me to include it, especially since the mug in question portrayed the Princess of Wales, whom I have seen lunching at the Caprice. Thus the portrait within the portrait and its only reference to food and drink is a nicely appropriate downmarket allusion to an upmarket clientèle. Halfway through the sittings I experimented with putting a second mug in (as, so to speak, a surrogate self) but this led to confusion, much shifting around of crockery and an eventual return to the original set-up. Shortly after that the mug was stolen by builders working on the studio roof and my assistant was only able to find an over-pretty and much less battered substitute.

The most difficult problem of all, in a work that sprouted problems, was to find what should occupy the blank wall behind the sitter, having some relevance to him and resonance with the mood that his presence seemed to establish. It so happens that, at the time, I was painting a picture of a dog based on a postcard that I had first used twenty years before (when it was sent to my by an ex-girlfriend Nancy Davies) from Burnham-on-Sea. 'Well, yes', he said, 'I actually did. I was born there'. It took some while for him to reassure me that he was not just making fun of my over-mystical solemnity. This strange but all too typical event both solved and created a problem, for it was now obvious that an image of Burnham-on-Sea was needed.

Jeremy's mother obliged by sending some current postcards of the beach and a famous lighthouse-tower called 'The Leading Light', which seemed promising as well as providing a possible and interestingly arcane second title for the painting. After toying with this I rejected it in favour of a general view of the town from the beach. This led to an expedition to Burnham-on-Sea itself (which I had never in fact visited) taking in on the way a performance of The Trojans in Southampton, with a diversion to Wincanton to search in vain for the grave of W.H. Mallock who died there in 1926 (as fruitless as the brief quest while in Burnham itself for the whereabouts of Nancy Davies). More successful was the hunt for an appropriate postcard from which to make the pastel that is seen behind Jeremy in the picture. This fourth generation scene (a painted transcription of a pastel from an offset reproduction of a photograph) with its yellow sands also completes the grey/yellow harmony of the picture by echoing the canework of the chairs. In addition it links two modes of my work twenty years apart.

The final element to enter the portrait was the newspaper that gives it its definitive title The Independent was born soon after we started the sittings and we were both enthusiastic early supporters: I have written fairly regularly for it myself since the outset and we also have mutual friends that work on it. Once having decided to include a copy of the paper I looked at issue after issue hoping to find the right headline, or perhaps a strong cricketing picture to indicate another interest that we share. In the end I decided that 'Britons Fail' coincidentally summed up the past cricket season and expressed the inevitable fact that no portrait can absolutely succeed in fulfilling the hopes of artist and sitter. Nevertheless it was a rich experience from which as well as consolidating a rewarding friendship I principally learned never to paint a tall man in a grey suit in conjunction with a richly patterned carpet, since both acreages are fraught with intractable problems.

The Portrait Works (1989),  p. 55-58