In the age of the selfie and our image-propelled social media era, some portrait painters may fear for the future of their art. As technology increasingly shapes how we see and share the world, this instantaneous method of capturing the portrait has become the defining visual genre of our time. We are surrounded by portraits, for we see representations of people everywhere. However, in contemporary art, portraits are much more than pure representation. Historically, portraitists primarily recorded the rich and powerful and created their work by commission, or by admiration and affection for their subject. However, today the skill of the portrait painter lies in the ability to define the essence of the sitter as well as a recognisable likeness.
Henrietta Young is an artist with a worldwide reputation as a portrait painter. Drawing and painting prolifically, she was able to capture a likeness from an early age. She has travelled for sittings across the United Kingdom, as well as in Europe and America. We chatted in her peaceful Dorset studio with stunning views across the newly harvested cornfields. On the subject of the portrait genre, she felt “It’s not just painting, there must be a degree of intuition about it. You can be a brilliant painter and not be able to get a likeness or you can have an accurate rendition of someone’s nose and eyes for example and it won’t look like them… People tell me their innermost feelings. Sitting is like being in the Psychiatrist’s Chair! The trick is to get to know the person.”
Henrietta came from an artistic background: not only were her 19th Century relations painters, but her father was an excellent draftsman and her mother a good water-colourist who painted all her life. Henrietta’s son George is also a painter and print maker, living and working in London. There were four girls in Henrietta’s family including the artist Amanda Vesey; and Amanda’s twin sister Georgina’s son is Tom Hammick, also a prestigious artist. He was the winner of the V&A Prize at the 2016 International Print Biennale, the work having since been acquired into the V&A collections.
A modest persona, Henrietta told me that “Painters have traditionally been people who don’t talk about themselves. People find out about you by seeing. If you see a piece of contemporary art and you need a full explanation of what it’s about then what’s the point? I’d rather the work spoke for itself.” She has firm beliefs in the importance of the basics in the teaching of children to draw – “You can’t progress until you have the correct tools to work with.” She is disciplined in the way she works, going to her studio every day with just a break for lunch: “I get bored if I don’t work hard”.
One glance through her website gallery (http://www.henriettayoung.com) will confirm her talent. She says: “A conversation tells you more about somebody than a photo ever can. Each sitting (a picture might need five or six) reveals something different. A good portrait is much more than a likeness – it expresses something essential. It’s a collaboration between the artist and the sitter; you both feel when you have got it right.”
However, there has naturally been a break with commissions during the pandemic so, as with many other artists I have talked to, the focus turned to the beauty and vivid colours of the countryside. Henrietta has spent daily local walks admiring and absorbing the scenery, now the subject of her new exhibition to be held at The Art Stable in Child Okeford from 16 October-13 November.
Another passionate project also uppermost in Henrietta’s mind at the moment is the Diverse Abilities’ Splash Appeal (www.thesplashappeal.org.uk). Diverse Abilities is Dorset’s disability charity supporting children and adults with profound physical and learning disabilities across the county. As Henrietta said “we don’t have any idea what it’s like to be powerless. Not just being not able to walk, but being powerless… So the ability to move and have fun in the water is so important.”
Raising funds for a hydrotherapy pool for people who attend The Beehive Centre in Poole and who have profound disabilities such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy and multiple learning disabilities, she will be helping to run and organise an Exhibition and Auction of Contemporary Art. Henrietta visited this Day Centre during her husband’s year as High Sheriff for Dorset in 2017/18 when, in comparison to those under the age of 18, she was struck by the lack of facilities for adults. At that time, she tells me, there were not even enough toilets: “It was like something out of Dickens”. The situation has greatly improved with funds from Diverse Abilities – but the Centre badly needs a hydrotherapy pool, essential to the treatment, wellbeing and enjoyment of the 50 or so adults who attend the Centre.
Thus, Henrietta wrote to as many famous artists as she knew and asked if they could help. Most of them were willing and 28 artists have generously donated their work. Four of them – Catherine Goodman, Ursula Leach, Jemma Phipps and Sarah Pickstone have now attended The Beehive to talk and also draw those involved and get to know them. These drawings will also be on display at the Exhibition. Some of the other well-known Artists helping to raise the £1 million needed for the pool include Antony Gormley RA, Paula Rego RA, Maggi Hambling, Nicholas Hely Hutchinson and Ryan Gander. All of the work to be auctioned by Duke’s is displayed on the website (www.picturesforthebeehive.org.uk) with details and price guide; but bids can be placed before the event by contacting Tallulah Barnett at Duke’s (01305 265080). Online bidding will be available from 8th September.
The Pictures for the Beehive exhibition runs between 21st and 22nd September (with the Private View and Auction on 23rd) at St Giles House, Wimborne St Giles. This is the beautiful home of Nick Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, who, following the deaths of his father and older brother, returned to England to renovate St. Giles House on the family’s 5,000-acre estate.
By: Edwina Baines