Sheffield artist Lorna May Wadsworth on her homecoming exhibition and what it was like painting Margaret Thatcher

Lorna May Wadsworth next to her portrait of Margaret Thatcher, part of her retrospective, Gaze, at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield.
Lorna May Wadsworth next to her portrait of Margaret Thatcher, part of her retrospective, Gaze, at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield.
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I meet Lorna May Wadsworth in the beatified surroundings of Sheffield Cathedral.

It’s where, in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, a charcoal sketch of her acclaimed reworking of Leonardo’s Last Supper, in which Jesus is represented by a black fashion model, has been installed.

The artist, pictured at the gallery, was born and grew up in Sheffield.

The artist, pictured at the gallery, was born and grew up in Sheffield.

It is a counterpoint to a new exhibition of her work that has recently opened at the Graves Gallery, in Sheffield. Gaze: A Retrospective of Portraits by Lorna May Wadsworth, includes more than a hundred of her most striking images, including portraits of Sir Derek Jacobi, David Tennant, Richard Curtis, David Blunkett and Margaret Thatcher.

The title, as with her aforementioned altar drawing, is quietly subversive playing as it does with the so-called ‘male gaze’ – a representation of women defined by how men view them – which has become a contentious topic in the past couple of years. “I wanted to call it the ‘female gaze’ but I was told that was not inclusive enough. But the underlying theme of my work is an inversion of that assumed male gaze which permeates contemporary culture and the whole of Western art.”

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For Wadsworth, the retrospective means a return to the city where she grew up. Her family home was in Grenoside, a leafy suburb to the north west of the city. She went to Notre Dame School where her passion for art was forged. “I took refuge in it. I think I spent most of year 9 in the art room every day getting better at pencil drawings,” she says.

Her career in portraiture began at the tender age of 14 when she was asked to paint Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker by his grandmother after bumping into her at one of his gigs. She sent the family a picture she’d done of him based on an NME cover. “I saw Jarvis at an arts event many years hence and I asked him about that picture and he said, ‘yeah, it’s still on my mum’s landing and I have to pass it every time I go to the toilet,’” she says, laughing.

Her painting of David Blunkett is one of those on display.

Her painting of David Blunkett is one of those on display.

She went to Falmouth College of Art and the Prince’s Drawing School in London, eschewing the conceptual art that was all the rage in the 90s, but which she found restrictively dogmatic.

Returning to Sheffield, she bumped into Sir Derek Jacobi one day outside the Crucible Theatre. “I’d read about this guy called Stuart Pearson Wright, who’d won the Portrait Prize in 2001, and I remember him saying that he’d gone up to John Hurt and asked if he would sit for him, and I thought, ‘if he can do that then I can do the same with Derek Jacobi’. I caught up with him just before he reached the stage door and I said, ‘excuse me, Mr Jacobi?’ and he turned round and said ‘yes’. I told him who I was and asked if he would sit for me. He was really kind and told me to send a note to the stage door and he’d get back to me. I did this and he phoned my parents house and spoke to my brother and he ended up sitting for me.”

He was one of the first well-known figures she painted, but certainly not the last. She wrote a letter to David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, saying that his portrait wasn’t in the National Portrait Gallery and she thought it should be. “He sat for me because he admired my chutzpah,” she says. “Basically, if an opportunity crossed my path then I would take it with both hands, because if I did then I would never regret anything.”

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Wadsworth was still in her mid-20s when she painted arguably her most famous subject, Margaret Thatcher. Again happenstance, and a helpful contact, came to her aid. She spotted her at the opera one evening and asked her protection officer if he could pass a note to her. He told her he couldn’t and suggested she write to the House of Lords.

That could have been the end of it were it not for her friend, the journalist Frank Miles. He wrote a letter on her behalf and eventually a reply came back saying Baroness Thatcher “would be delighted to sit for Lorna”.

The Iron Lady could turn hardened politicians into quivering wrecks, so how did she find her? “She was awesome… When I first met her it was all I could do not to curtsey when I went into the room. I was not expecting that at all but she just had such an innate air of grandeur. Not in the way that people puff their chest out and try and project it, this was just pure unadulterated gravitas. But she was also very gracious and at the first sitting she was being very helpful moving furniture around.”

The former PM was in her early 80s and living a sequestered life in central London at the time. “I felt very protective of her. But I think the reason I fell in love with her the most is she let me paint her how I wanted.

“I remember she stood up and said, ‘now Lorna, may I see the painting or are you the kind of artist that only shows people their work when it’s finished?’” she says, doing a more than passable impersonation. “I could have kissed her, because it had never crossed my mind that I could be the kind of artist that only shows their work once it’s finished. So I said, ‘if you don’t mind, Lady Thatcher, I am the kind of artist that only shows their work when it’s finished.’ And she said, ‘very well.’”

She had five sittings each supposed to be no more than an hour. “Someone would come in and say ‘Lady Thatcher we’re coming up to an hour now’ and she would turn to me and say ‘and how are you doing?’ I’d say ‘really well, thank you.’ ‘Well, carry on,’” says Wadsworth.

“I used to visit her for tea just to see her. She reminded me very much of my grandmother. I don’t think she had all that many visitors so we kind of slipped into those familial roles. I’d take her paintings in my portfolio because she really responded to images. I asked if I could I do her a painting of anything what it would be, and she said the Palace of Westminster, so I did her that as a ‘thank you.’”

And what did she think of the finished portrait? “She said, ‘it’s very fierce.’ And I said, ‘yes, Lady Thatcher. But sometimes we ladies do have to be a little fierce to get our own way.’ And she said, ‘very true.’”

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Even though Wadsworth now lives in London she feels she owes Sheffield a debt of gratitude. “I think some of my ability to put people at ease and paint them is down to my Sheffield warmth and sense of humour and I feel that even though I haven’t lived here for a long time I’ve been entirely formed by this city. I loved Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics about Sheffield when I was growing up. They gave my teenage years a sense of romance, he was like the Alan Bennett of my youth.”

Now, at the age of 40, she can’t quite believe she’s having a retrospective in her home city. “I never felt like I’d get this honour, and certainly not in my lifetime.”

It was Thomas Jefferson who observed, “the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have”, and Wadsworth’s success belies plenty of graft. “I think the definition of success is how you handle failure. I’d hate people to look at the exhibition and think ‘it’s been easy for her’, because any artist will tell you it’s a struggle and you get knocks at every end and turn. You just have to believe in what you’re doing and not try and do something to fit in.”

This prompts a childhood memory. “I was in infants school and we were reading about Plop in The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark and we were all drawing Plop. It got to play time and the bell rang and everybody ran outside and I asked if I could stay and finish my pastel drawing of Plop, and in many ways I feel like nothing’s changed from that moment – I’m still finishing my picture of Plop and I’d rather do that than go out to play.”

Gaze: A Retrospective of Portraits by Lorna May Wadsworth, the Graves Gallery, Sheffield, to February 15, 2020.