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Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith
oil on panel
total outer frame: 83.6 x 42 cm
main portrait: 31 x 21 cm
smaller portraits each: 15.3 x 10.3 cm
National Portrait Gallery

Postcard: The Art Show Channel 4
featuring Tom Phillips & Charles Saumarez Smith
January 16th 2004
Narrator : Alan Bennett
Music : Fratelli Brothers
Filmed, edited & directed by Christopher Swayne
Filmed, produced & directed by Bruno Wollheim

The following text, written by the artist, was published in The Guardian alongside essays by the sitter, Charles Saumarez Smith, and the documentarian Bruno Wollheim, whose film for Channel 4's The Art Show premiered 16 January 2004. All three essays are available on The Guardian's website.

Portraiture is a risky business. Getting it right is a triumph over the uncertainties and anxieties of both artist and sitter. Catching a likeness is not a problem but any transcendence of mere likeness calls for a close collaboration where fears and vanities give way to patience and trust.

To invite a third party to portray the portraying is to add another risk to a fragile situation; to be victims not so much of a fly on the wall but a fly in the ointment.

Charles Saumarez Smith and I should however be hardened cases, one of us a practitioner for forty years and the other the nation's most recent portrait czar. Yet on my side nerves were already heightened by both the fact that Charles as the new Director of the National Gallery was now surrounded by portraits at the Titian/Velasquez/Holbein level and that I as a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery had to make a picture of their hugely admired ex director to set before my colleagues on the board.

Both of us were reassured to learn that our observer was to be Bruno Wollheim, friend of artists and a person notoriously sensitive to their work. Once I knew that there was to be no crew with lights and cables and clipboards I was happier still.

Charles was a very dedicated sitter and Bruno a no less diligent documenter and our two-hour Friday sessions were passed in a mood of great geniality. My problem was what was going on on the easel as false start succeeded false start.This is not unusual, but hardly what one wants on film. Charles's only request bad been that this should not be a large painting. He knew from experience that a smaller picture has a much better chance of remaining on view. My own instinct was to reflect that Charles is tall and thin by making a work which even though it only showed head and shoulders was narrow and vertical. What I seemed to end up doing, for I had no prearranged plan of action, was a series of miniatures whose own size perhaps reflected my preoccupation of the time, an exhibition of postcard portraits called We Are The People which I was organising at the NPG itself. After making about ten of these I started a larger panel in the same format adding the small panels to top and bottom, thereby as I realised making an object that shown on TV would be only a thin vertical stripe in the middle of the screen.

Bruno was very philosophical about this but I was always aware that I had somehow subverted if not sabotaged his film. He was already faced with problems of poor light and cramped conditions in the studio. Had I unconsciously revenged myself on the intrusion by making life as difficult as possible for the intruder?

The situation certainly had its paradoxes. Our sessions were a pleasure and there was much good cheer yet I have never done so much of a painting in the absence of the sitter (and of course in this case the cameraman). Charles also felt this absence of privacy and managed to secure at least one undocumented morning.

Quantum theory has always been a bit beyond me but I do now understand about observation itself being a factor in the behaviour of particles, though in this case the particles also occasioned the state of the observer. Like the physicist I can never know what the event would have been like unobserved or what result was thwarted (or mercifully avoided) in the process. Looking at the film itself I am amazed more by Bruno Wollheim's tenacity and ability to come up with a polished artefact under the circumstances than any achievement of mine.

Tom Phillips, The Guardian, Wednesday January 14, 2004