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Portrait of the artist who captured her sister at last

It's an honour for any artist to have a picture selected for the year's top portrait exhibition. Fiona Scott has done it several times – this time with a likeness of her famous sister Selina.

THERE'S a self-portrait of Fiona Scott hanging in the bedroom of an Australian couple who bought it a few years ago from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition.

Even the artist found it strange – that unknown art lovers see her likeness every day in such an intimate space. But it's the nature of art that any sort of image can speak to the beholder so much that they are moved to own it.

Her latest creation, and the first major piece of work she has completed since having her last child, Lily, 18 months ago, is a painting she has longing to do for more than 20 years. Fiona had painted almost everyone else in her large family, including husband Mark and their other three children, but had failed to pin down her eldest sister Selina for more than 20 years.

Selina's high-flying TV presenting work took her from BBC Breakfast Time onward to celebrity interviews, her own American talk show and eventually back to her native North Yorkshire, a little disillusioned with the way TV was going.

For a few years she avoided the media spotlight, and devoted herself to a large farm and flock of angora goats, whose yarn is used to make luxury socks.

More recently, Selina has come out of hiding and helped to finance the farm with appearances on programmes about country matters. She can be seen on Tuesday nights on BBC2's The Underdog Show, where she is competing against other celebrities in training rescue dogs.

Fiona, 45, whose family and home commitments mean she has to box her painting into two days a week and the odd evening, managed to pin down Selina for a few sittings just before last Christmas.

"I hadn't painted her since I left college," says Fiona. "There simply hasn't been time since, what with her travelling so much and not being around, and me spending the last 12 years having children. But once we both realised there was a chance, we just went for it."

The location is Selina's comfortable kitchen; her companion is Nip, the Collie cross, and the outfit – sturdy boots, thick socks, jeans and casual shirt – is characteristic of the life she leads on her own acres. This is the no-nonsense Selina Scott who may be helping with shearing one minute and hammering posts into the ground the next.

"I really wanted to get my teeth into something big, and this turned out to be it," says Fiona, who studied art in Dundee, and for many years had a studio and gallery in Helmsley. Although she has painted landscapes, her real love is the face, whether human or animal.

"I've never actually advertised, but it started with a family portrait done for a local antiques dealer. Since then I have had regular commissions from local people. Word gets around, and luckily I usually have as much time as I need. A large oil can take up to three months."

One particularly engaging portrait by Fiona is that of Jeffrey Taylor, a Helmsley rabbit breeder. The painting was accepted into the BP Portrait Competition at The National Portrait Gallery. Mr Taylor later bought the picture, and on his death it was bequeathed to a rabbit breeding friend.

"I've done many paintings of children, including my own and nieces and nephews. I've also done portraits of men in the area, whose wives have commissioned the picture. It's always very challenging, but I do sometimes wish I could do an attractive woman. Men don't seem to be thoughtful in the same way, in commissioning portraits of their wives."

Fiona admits that, once the opportunity came along to paint Selina, there were a few nerves on both sides. "Yes, I felt a slight wobble, and I think Selina probably found it odd and a bit nerve-racking. But in the end she was very happy.

"She is a fantastic subject, as she has such an attractive face. You can work on the eyes of a woman more than with a man." Fiona finished the four-foot-by-three-foot painting just in time to submit it for consideration by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters for its Annual Exhibition.

More than 800 paintings were sent in, but only 200 accepted into the show – the lion's share of them from highly acclaimed artists who are members or associates of the RSPP. For an artist who has spent years submerged in nappies and the school run, winning a place in the show is an especially big deal.

"Although it wasn't the first time – I've done it a few times before, with paintings of family members – I'm as thrilled as though it was the first time. There's no denying that feeling of validation, I suppose."

The portrait of Selina will rub shoulders with those of Gore Vidal, a study for a portrait of Pope Benedict, Ronald Harwood, Boris Johnson and Joan Bakewell, as well as Sergei Pavlenko's Royal Group at Prince Harry's passing out from Sandhurst, shown publicly for the first time at the RSPP show.

Most of the exhibits are of less well-known faces, and the show embraces many different media. Many are commissioned by individuals, families or organisations, but those carrying a price tag will sell for anything from a few hundred pounds to 17,000. A snip, when compared to the 1m you'd pay for a Lucian Freud.

The portrait was Fiona's idea, but Selina was so pleased with the result that she has bought it. The youngest of five siblings, Fiona has painted everyone in the family except her toddler daughter. Many artists might blanch at the idea of a wriggling youngster; she finds them reasonably easy.

"You just plonk them in front of the television. My own four are very used to seeing the art paraphernalia, as my studio is at home. It doesn't bother them if I sit down near them with a pad and pencil.

"I have a project coming up which is a brother and sister whom I painted when they were small. They are now young adults, and their parents want a grown-up portrait. That kind of thing, where you can see the changes in the faces, is fascinating.

"I suppose I'd describe my style as realistic. I try to capture a good likeness, something representative. With Selina the feeling of the painting is contemporary – no fussy drapes or ornaments. I was going for something more minimalist.

"I would like to do a series of 'Yorkshire characters' – maybe a few people like Judi Dench, Michael Parkinson and Ken Morrison, but also local people. I come across so many fantastic faces."

Does she think there is a certain physical characteristic that might be shared by those Yorkshire faces?

"Hmm... a kind of determination might be common to them, perhaps."

The paintings that refused to die

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters was founded in 1891 to promote the art, development and understanding of portraiture. Since then, interest in portrait painting has, waxed and waned. Reports of the death of the portrait in the 1940s were grossly exaggerated, says RSPP spokesman Richard Fizwilliams.

"People thought that perhaps it would be replaced by photography, but it actually hasn't happened. Cameras are wonderful at catching a moment, but they don't always deliver with a portrait. On the other hand, no-one caught the true glamour of Diana Princess of Wales in a portrait."

Mr Fitzwilliams says the idea that portraiture is elitist or a thing of the past is one that is changing. A simple pencil drawing, a pastel or a pen and ink study of a face can be relatively cheap and just as successful and prized as a full-scale oil painting.

"There was a feeling in certain circles that portraits were old-fashioned, nothing to do with contemporary art. But if you look at the range of work in our show, many of them are fresh, relaxed and even experimental. That scepticism, felt by those who wanted to cut loose from the past has thankfully been lost."

Mr Fitzwilliams would love to see a portrait win the Turner Prize. "I think portraiture has been overlooked, and should be treasured more. The best capture a likeness, but tell you something more than what they look like."

The Royal Society of Painters Annual Exhibition runs from April 26 – May 13 at the Mall Galleries, 17, Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5BD, telephone 0207 930 6844 .

 
 
 

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