Portraits of a repetitive formula rarely broken

THROUGHOUT history the art of the portrait has represented the good, the great and the worthy members of society, notably in the area of commissioned paintings.

Artists, particularly if one thinks of 18th and 19th century portraits, provided their patrons with a drawing or painting which would help inflate their image and display their wealth as well as the skill of the artist in creating a likeness of them.

Of course in this rather “socialist” reading of the history of portraiture it was people with money who paid the piper. Those of a lower social order rarely appeared in portraits. Only when photography arrived on the scene did portraiture become available to the majority and then only if you looked smart and clean.

Commissioned art has a long history going back to the days when the church, the state and royalty in particular created the demand. Nowadays it’s more likely to be business that creates the same opportunities and even then they are few and far between.

And usually it has to be big business. So when a major oil company commissioned artist Fionna Carlisle to represent those behind the scenes of current activities in the oil industry the results were always going to be interesting.

Energy: North Sea Portraits is the result and it is currently at Da Gadderie in the Shetland Museum on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. It consists of portraits of a number of individuals (from across the social scale) who represent the myriad activities necessary to run the North Sea oil industry.

Significantly for the artist they show the people within their working environment away from studio conditions and, in some cases, were worked on in the cramped, confined spaces offshore.

However, in most cases you wouldn’t necessarily realise that because background and specific “props” suggesting the working conditions are generally missing.

These portraits conform to a regular format, half length in most cases, full face or slightly turned away from the viewer. No photo­graphs were used in the making of this work but all based on “eye-balling” to use David Hockney’s “technical” term.

And in some way I felt Hockney was ghosting behind but only in the representation of the face itself. Here most of the artist’s skill resides not unnaturally in the depiction of the sitter’s likeness. Away from the face the analytical disintegrates into the decorative.

There’s a few well recognisable characters, Lord Cullen, Archer Kemp and the robust Alex Salmond MSP but mostly these are unknown people working behind the scenes. We glimpse in these portraits some hint of their individual temper­aments.

The formula can appear repetitive, the hands always either clasped or resting on the lap. Only a couple break from this, Lord Cullen, his right hand in pensive pose, and Andrew Hogg be-kilted and reclining.

The paint, mostly acrylic and watercolour on paper, is thinly laid over an initial pencil drawing. There are a few pencil-only portraits displaying a light and sketchy drawing technique, a network of lines forming the facial features with more expressive work in the clothing below. Look closely at the painted portraits and you see that same pencil structure beneath, plenty of white emerging, helping the skin tones, lightening them.

The most gestural bits are the treatment of the sitters’ clothes, particularly those in darker fabrics or their work safety gear, such as Colin King and Nicola Park in their bright orange suits and Laure Veyradier in what looks like a wet suit. Formal wear on the men contrasts with the looser flowing clothes worn by some of the women. I did like the spontaneous improvised suggestion of a kilt and sporran on Andrew Hogg.

You have to adjust to some of the proportions. Sometimes it’s a stylistic thing, a conceit of the artist while in others it’s the result of more time concentrating on the face and the likeness and less time on the rest. And some may be put off by the sketchy nature of the portraits themselves. However, we have to acknowledge the often difficult situations and restrictions faced by the artist working in a not ideal venue.

For me the paintings that work best work because of the whole image, face, clothing, background, like the portrait of David McKeon, the Rev Angus Smith and that of Colin King. Ironically the only self-portrait is the least analytical, a harsh expressive full length painting full of vigorous movement but ultimately failing to tell us anything about the artist, the face smeared almost like a watercolour version of a Francis Bacon face.

Da Gadderie is a good venue for such a large collection and the display is well hung and well lit. There is still time to catch the show before it closes on Monday.

Peter Davis


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