Portraits of Professors of Theatre

By Sir Richard Eyre

Churchill described the portrait of him by Graham Sutherland as “filthy” and “malignant” and it was later burnt by his wife. Ronald Reagan rejected three official White House portraits of him before he felt he’d been justly represented. John Singer Sargent, when asked why he completely redid the face of a young woman 15 times, answered, “She had a mother”. The job of a painter on commission is not a happy lot. You don’t have to be a narcissist to want to look younger, slimmer, have more hair and less nose, smaller ears and larger lips. So it’s hardly surprising that, erring on the expedient side of caution or tipping into flattery, most institutional portraits tend to have such a listless look. But even the drab and unexceptional have the capacity to illuminate the period in which the sitter and painter lived.

To which you might say: so do photographs. Look, for instance at August Sander’s series of photographic portraits, People of the 20th Century, which documents Germans of all trades and classes in the 1920s and 30s – soldiers, bankers, farmers, painters, circus performers, dancers, actors, SS officers, Jewish intellectuals, gypsies, boxers, country girls, civil servants and patients in an insane asylum – photographed with an innocent eye, absent of judgement or of prejudice. “Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age,” he said, and in doing so he made a huge, glorious, unrivalled, forensic visual encyclopaedia of a whole society on the cusp of catastrophe.

But however brilliant a photographer, photographs only show us faces caught in a single moment of time – they “register and give us documents” said Matisse – whereas the act of painting is, in a sense, timeless or, to put it another way, painting contains three dimensions of time: the past, the present and the future. A portrait painting can project the painter’s feelings about the sitter, about his or her character, about the world that he or she inhabits. “Painting” – Matisse again – “should be a translation of feelings” which is the opposite of abdicating from judgement or prejudice. It’s a useful prism to look at Francis Hamel’s portraits of the Cameron Mackintosh Professors of Theatre.

These paintings – commissioned by the eponymous founder of the professorship – are suffused with a candid admiration for the subjects, all people who have been prominent in British theatre over the last 40 or 50 years – actors, writers, composers, directors, designers, producers. They display the feelings of the patron every bit as much as the painter and, while it would be characteristic of Cameron Mackintosh to have had his hand on the paintbrush metaphorically if not literally, that has not been the case: he has chosen the perfect painter for the subjects and allowed him free expression.

Francis Hamel has used the freedom of his commission to look at his subjects with a questioning curiosity. The surprise is how untheatrical these people are: there’s no swish or swagger, no self-display or sense of self-importance. In that sense, it’s not like looking at lawyers in one of the great halls of the Inns of Court or city merchants in one of the livery companies. What marks the faces in these portraits is thoughtfulness, many tinged with an air of melancholy. If there is a prevailing feeling that emerges – both from the painter and the subjects – it is self-doubt, an awareness that both parties know how difficult it is in any medium to make a piece of work that does justice to the infinite variety of human life.

It’s true that the spectrum is narrow – these are mostly old, mostly white, mostly men (myself included) – but it seems to me that these faces defy the convenient stereotype of theatre people, meaning that they don’t appear sentimental or vain or superficial or essentially unserious. In fact, looking at the portraits of Arthur Miller, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard, it’s hard not to construe that you’re looking at individuals who have achieved something considerable and lasting: they’ve changed the specific gravity of our language.

“We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people” says the Player in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, but when you look at the paintings of Simon Russell Beale and Ian McKellen they seem the opposite of actors: guarded and private. In the predominantly male world, the paintings of the women stand out, perhaps idealised: the director Phillida Lloyd looks like a secular saint, the producer Thelma Holt, an elfin angel. If there is one portrait that, with prescience, portrays the fate of the sitter it’s the haunting study of Kevin Spacey: his shoulders are bare, as if ready for execution.

I met Francis first when he was sketching in a rehearsal room while I was rehearsing Betty Blue Eyes, a musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh. He was discreet, unobtrusive and above all, watchful. It is this watchfulness that I think marks out all his work, whether it be flowers, landscapes, circus paintings or portraits. Watchfulness means honouring the light, the colour and the shape of things and people, and translating those observations into emotions conveyed by paint on a canvas. If there’s a painter that Francis reminds me of it’s Henri Fantin-Latour, celebrated for his group portraits of contemporaries from the world of the arts and his exquisite flower paintings. He’s conservative, untouched by modernism, with a benign view of the world marked by luminous warmth and generosity of spirit. “Above all,” said Matisse, “the great thing is to express oneself” – a maxim shared, I think, by all these subjects and by their painter.

Sir Richard Eyre is an English film, theatre, television and opera director.