A PORTRAIT it may be, but unlike the Mona Lisa it’s not the eyes that follow you around the room, it’s the boiled eggs.
On the eve of a new exhibition that will form part of its Capital of Culture celebrations, they uncrated Stuart Pearson Wright’s study of the author JK Rowling in Hull today. They left it until almost the last minute because they had first to build a new wall for it.
The 2005 work is one of two dozen on loan from the National Portrait Gallery for the event, which is being mounted in Hull University’s art gallery. All are commissioned pieces by winners of the BP Portrait Awards, regarded by some as the Oscars of the art world.
The subjects include the Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes, the actors Sir Michael Caine, Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, and the men’s fashion designer, Sir Paul Smith.
But it is the distinctive and unconventional view of a yet to be knighted subject that will draw the most eyes, the gallery’s curator predicted.
Inspired, perhaps, by the fractured reality of her stories about Harry Potter and a school for wizards, the portrait of JK Rowling cheats the eye by changing its perspective according to the angle at which it is viewed.
At first glance a simple study of the writer at work in a narrow and sparsely furnished room, sustained by just a Dimplex radiator and a plate of boiled eggs and soldiers, the painting is actually several layers deep.
“It’s a 3D construction, a perspective illusion with its own internal lighting,” said John Bernasconi, director of the university’s art collection.
“You first see it at a slight angle, and you’re drawn in to explore it. It looks like a two-dimensional picture on a wall but it’s in a box. The joinery department had to install a false wall for it.
“It relies on exaggerated perspective effects to look like a deeper space than it is. It’s smaller than you think, but also incredibly detailed. The mini radiator and the egg spoon she’s holding are all 3D or 2D cutouts.”
Miss Rowling herself said at the portrait’s unveiling that it showed “more of me than any photo has ever shown”, while its creator said he had conceived it in the manner of a regency toy theatre.
“It is quite unnerving to see yourself presented like this and to stand here and recognise it as me,” Miss Rowling said.
The new exhibition, which opens on Wednesday and runs until June, follows the British Museum’s touring production, Lines of Thought, which played in the same space to 20,000 visitors at the start of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture.
It was only after the crowds had gone, and the joiners began work on the false wall, that they discovered the accumulated debris of so many pairs of feet.
Mr Bernasconi said: “We had to reclean the whole floor. We had no idea just how dirty it had become.”
The new exhibits, he said, represented “the best of the best” of British portraiture, having been commissioned for exhibition by winners of the BP award.
The five-and-a-half feet tall portrait of Dame Kelly Holmes was another showstopper, he added.
“That is one that strikes everyone. It’s huge, and very much focused on the face in incredible detail, so it looks like a giant photograph.”
Some of the other subjects may raise an eyebrow for other reasons. Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder and heavily-criticised former chief executive of the collapsed charity Kids Company, sat for the BP winner Dean Marsh in 2008, and though her political standing has diminished, her artistic cachet remains intact.
“A portrait is a portrait,” Mr Bernasconi said. “It was commissioned in 2005, when she was in favour. It’s a very splendid portrait - the only circular one on display, and it earns its place as a work of art.”
The choice of a major exhibition linked to a BP-sponsored event was no coincidence, he added.
As the details were being unveiled, the oil giant was busy handing out invitations to a party celebrating its 50th anniversary in Hull, as operator of the Saltend Chemicals Park, seven miles downstream.
Mr Bernasconi said: “BP is a major employer in the area. They allowed us to have this exhibition of its winners’ works.”
The firm took over the portrait awards in 1989, from its previous sponsor, Player’s cigarettes.