Portraiture is where art meets commerce head on. I notice that as soon as I walk into this lunchtime’s seething private view of the annual exhibition by members of the Royal Society of Portraiture down at the Mall Galleries, which is, appropriately enough, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Palace. An area is dedicated to something called ‘portrait enquiries’. There’s a table, a ledger (yes, it looks quite that high falutin’), pens, and prints of artists’ works on what look like storyboards. And this year, as ever, the walls are teeming with portraits, almost all of them smartly framed. (Portraits can’t afford to look scruffy.) Choose your style. Choose how you would like to see yourself. Then write down your name beside the portraitist of your choice and, gulp, ask him how much - for such and such a size - in these lamentably straitened times.
That is the thing about portraiture. It is immediately accountable to its subject, and to fairly traditional notions of what reality exactly consists of in a way that much contemporary art is not. Contemporary art tests reality until it bends and nearly breaks. People laugh at it. People mock it. Then some poker-faced Mr Anonymous in a city suit lays down a million or two by phone line, and the mockers fall silent, and the art critics start to pen long and difficult sentences.
No, commissioned portraiture just can’t get away with the wild levels of experimentation which characterised so much of the art of the 20th century. All those isms! People want to be reassured by their portraits, They want to recognize themselves in what they see, to know themselves as they believe themselves to be, and not only their own hands, faces and bodies, but the kinds of contexts in which they live and move and have their day-to-day being: The college they preside over with such strictly avuncular authority; the medals that shine, so richly deserved. And the portrait painter, by and large, needs to satisfy their needs so that money will shift relatively easily, and with more than a modicum of good will – another satisfied sitter, you might say - from patron to portraitist. It’s as simple as that. It always has been.
And yet there is a problem here. Much of the stuff on these walls is excellently painted - after all, these people are professionals at what they do. And yet much of it doesn’t stir us very much. It doesn’t have the excitement of work which is breaking new ground. We know it for what it is, for what it is expecting us to feel, almost without looking at it. It presses such familiar buttons. It is, for example, satisfying easy assumptions about class, respectability, eminence, correct behaviour. It is making a lot of people feel that this is how the dependable world works. It doesn’t court risks. It’s never nasty or slightly troubling. We look at portraits of comfortably prosperous families sitting on a chaise longue, and we recognize that this is exactly the kind of scene that Gainsborough would have painted for a similar family two hundred years ago. The price would have been high – as it is now. And the head of this memorialised family would have been hugely proud that they had the money to confirm their own status as a serenely prosperous family. Not all of it is like this, mind you, but a lot of it is.
The dreariest paintings are of human beings we know both too well and not at all: Mrs Thatcher, the Princess Royal. Now why do these paintings seem so tediously unlikeable and uninteresting? Well, they seem to be identikit – if not mulch - works, and not even especially good likenesses – we’ve all seen much better press photographs. They feel like general impressions which have had the reality wrung out of them. Public figures as visually edible as last months’s mouldering baguette behind the radiator. Or is it that we never really liked the idea of these women much anyway?