Painting the Flame by Lorraine Bewsey

In 1976 Kyffin Williams was commissioned to paint the portrait of the President of the Royal College of Physicians. The sitter arrived at the studio in Pwllfanogl at ten a.m. with the announcement he was due at a meeting in Liverpool at five that afternoon. Williams did the job. The resulting portrait of a black-suited Sir Cyril Clarke captures the intelligence of the medical consultant allied to the toughness of the management leader.

Tanni Grey-Thompson, Painting the Flame, Portraits by Lorraine Bewsey review
Tanni Grey-Thompson Painting the Flame Portraits by Lorraine Bewsey National Library of Wales

It is inconceivable that Lorraine Bewsey might complete one of her portraits of Britain’s champion athletes within a similar space of a few hours. A Kyffin Williams picture, even in the poorest reproduction, is recognisably composed of its material. The palette knife is used in broad strokes. Lorraine Bewsey works her pastels to a precision of line and density of tone that is uncommon, distinctly unmodish. Even with the viewer’s eye at a distance of six inches the images hold on to their subjects and do not switch to their substance as pigment.

The term “photographic” might be applied but her work is a world away from that of a Richard Estes. The luminosity of colour evokes better the craft of the generation of Byam Shaw, himself encouraged as a fifteen year old by Millais. Tanni Grey-Thompson wears a necklace of several different jewels. An opal is possessed of a Holbein-like lustre and depth.

Lorraine Bewsey states her intention: “I want my portraits not only to draw out the essential character of my subjects, but to be appreciated for the quality of line and tone…to feel that the skill of an individual artist in drawing and painting is important.”

The nine portraits, five pastels and four oils, differ from photography in two prime respects. Firstly, the works have a quality of three-dimensionality that still eludes any printer, although the new light-field photography may change that. The colossal strength contained in weightlifter David Morgan’s forearms stands out against the face. The head is tilted with the lightest of smiles in the eyes. His biceps have the width of his face.

Accomplishment in sport, as elsewhere, is capability tethered to will. The works repeatedly capture that blend. Nathan Stephens is painted in profile poised to throw the javelin. The face is focused intention. The fingers are painted meticulously with a grip that is firm but loose, ready for action. Rower Tom James is similarly turned towards the water of the river which is the background. Mind and body are again in apposition; the force in the folded arms, a look of distant concentration in the eyes that can read the meaning of every ripple of the water’s surface.

Bernice Hooper and Tanni Grey-Thompson are painted as conventional head-and-part-shoulder portraits. The athletes in many cases are painted in poses of association with their sport. Nicola Tustain stands beside her horse. Cyclist Simon Richardson is painted in close-up, the head taking up two-fifths of the picture height.  His body leans forward. The two arcs of blue on his suit come up from his wrists and converge like a pair of pliers. At the closest of distances, a matter of inches, the zip along the shoulders can be seen as formed from hundreds of tiny strokes. The blue itself has the distinct texture of densely applied pastel. Reproduction loses it.

This particular picture encapsulates painting’s second difference from photography. The artist plays, knowingly or not, with those boundaries of the physiology of human vision. The best portraits exploit the switch of the brain between core and peripheral vision. Simon Richardson’s upward gaze is open to a galaxy of interpretation, steadfastness, pain maybe, resignation. That elusiveness and ambiguity of expression are the aesthetic accomplishment.

Each host country creates an Olympics to its own image. It is a part of Britishness to cock a snoot at authority, to relish taking pomposity down a peg or two. Lord Coe is ambassador, chairman, visionary, but he is also cheerleader, the universal P-E master resolute that everyone is going to have a jolly good time. The deluge of disparagement is inevitable. That is our heritage and culture, whether it be Zil lanes, the IOC’s preening demands for every luxury, hotel scalpers, steroids, corporate privilege, Jamie Oliver being banned from holding his Hackney party for real Londoners. That is how Britain does the Olympics. Lord Coe and his colleagues have much to their credit, not least selling tickets to genuine audiences, more than Beijing ever did.

But “Painting the Flame” takes the Olympics back to what it is. It is the athletes that matter. Fretting over whether Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony “beats” its predecessors belittles both sport and art. This collection is of the greater significance.