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Adrian Mitchell

Adrian Mitchell
oil on canvas
101 x 76 cm
private collection

Adrian Mitchell
61 x 37.5 cm
National Portrait Gallery

Satie Day/Night
48 x 32 cm
National Portrait Gallery

The idea of making a portrait of Adrian Mitchell grew out of our work on his play Satie Day/Night, for which I made the sets and costumes.

After a few preliminary drawings I started on the canvas itself placing Adrian in his favourite chair in front of the post I designed for his play. The picture jogged on in this mode for about ten sittings. One morning Adrian arrived as I was working on the Turneresque sky that forms the surround to Curriculum Vitae IX and envied it as being more interesting than the otherwise uneventful wall in his own picture. Since he had brought a model aeroplane which we thought to add to the picture it seemed reasonable that it should have a small patch of sky to fly out of.

Eric Satie himself in the poster is shown as a Jack-in-the-Box so the idea of toys became a theme that I warmed to, since one of Adrian's chief characteristics as a poet is roughly to have retained the child in himself. We also tried a London bus, but could not get one on the right scale or in the pressed tin that we both felt nostalgic about. Eventually Adrian turned up with a Chinese fire engine manned by stalwart People's Firemen, which echoed the speech in praise of fire engines in the Satie play and recalled, as well, its leitmotif of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Since the fire engine ran along the ground linking earth and fire and the aeroplane was a De Havilland Flying Boat at home in air and water the four elements were now present, embodied in two toys.

Suddenly the scrap of sky began to grow. It spread behind Adrian and surround Satie who surprised me by reappearing on the other side of the canvas behind the sitter's elbow. The dingy corner of the room disappeared and as appropriate to the poet's fantasy world, created an ambiguous space in which aeroplanes could fly and theatrical props clone themselves as impassive Chinese firemen looked on.

The next time Adrian turned up for a sitting he seemed delighted to find himself in the open air as the still centre of a ricocheting composition. This only left two or three attempts at the hands and the painting of the aeroplane itself, in which I tried to capture the style of those on the packets of model kits I'd admired as a child. I didn't quite achieve the hoped for slickness, but then I hadn't painted an aeroplane for almost forty years.

The last touches to the picture took the form of signatures. Adrian's characteristic trademark of an elephant appears on his shirt-pocket and is faithfully adapted from a drawing that he made specially on the back of an envelope. Since the poet's world is not completely represented without, somewhere, the presence of Celia his wife, I put her initials on the side of Satie's box, in apposition to the number twenty-four which Adrian had asked me when we started the sittings to work into the picture in some form.

The Portrait Works (1989),  p. 52-53

See also the book cover to Love Songs of World War Three, designed by Tom Phillips and featuring the portrait.