A little over a year ago, I commissioned an artist friend of min (Cathy Barcham) to paint a portrait of me. I gave her a very specific brief. The painting was to be executed in oils and of good size (100 x 50 cm). I was less concerned with an exact likeness. We have been friends for nearly 20 years and I asked her to use that understanding in the painting itself. I wanted her to paint a picture of me as a friend, warts and all. I did not want a simply flattering portrait. I set no timeframe for the painting beyond my own impatience. The painter however knows me well enough to be able to resist enquiries of the “how’s it going?” variety.
Why would I choose to have my portrait painted? Many of you may feel this act to be little more than self aggrandising nonsense, the supreme conceit and a triumph of misdirected narcissism. If that’s your view, that’s fine. You may stop reading here and I will wish you a cheery goodbye.
I think they’ve gone now. So let me just dismiss those points above. The painting itself dismisses most of these points anyway. I have sufficient insight into my facial features to realise that I am not a George Clooney, a Paul Newman or Robert Redford. Girls may indeed swoon at the sight of my face but that’s usually for different reasons! At least when they comment that I am no oil painting, I can demonstrate that I am!
But in any case that misses the point. The reason for commissioning this painting was primarily because of the way in which one’s expression changes during the course of Parkinson’s. We are all familiar with those blank expressions and soulless eyes that are so characteristic of advanced Parkinson’s. My intention with this was to try and capture something of me before Parkinson’s robs me.
But there are photographs surely? Why a painting? Yes of course but they fail to capture the subtleties of facial expression, the transient micro-expressions that an artist sees that the camera doesn’t. Don’t misunderstand – I am a huge fan of photography and its power of expression but when it comes to portraits, the camera falters. It had to be a painting.
I know of no painter who could capture my inner soul better than Cathy. I did not want an airbrushed, beaming, Bourgeois picture of self-satisfaction. I wanted something that would peer into the dark as well as blank back in the light. I wanted something that hinted at the unknown. For that, there is no one better than Cathy. This is her domain, capturing in a single brushstroke all of the unseen. Of those consoling hugs, the shaking night terrors, of hopes and fears. It’s all there. And I see more, the more I look.
When it comes to Parkinson’s, I am fundamentally on borrowed time. Each day invites me to do something extraordinary, to find new ways to communicate.
Those of you who have read this far will realise the ultimate purpose of this painting. It’s not about me. It never has been.
This is for my children.