They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. When portrait artist Daphne Todd felt moved to exact a little justice she did it in oils and the results won’t be seen for 50, possibly 100 years.
Faced with a particular obnoxious subject, she decided to add a little artistic flourish fo her own to the final painting.
“Ah yes, the horns,” says the York-born artist, who recently confessed to her crime on Radio 4’s Today programme. The confession had everyone ever painted by Todd staring a little more closely than usual at their portraits. “I painted hair on top, but the horns will bleed through eventually. It’s not something I make a habit of doing, but this particular person deserved it.”
Todd says that thanks to the story doing the rounds on Twitter she suspects the victim now knows who they are, although she’s reluctant to stoke the fire any further by naming names.
“I get the impression they have been made aware, but I don’t have any regrets. I felt put out because they weren’t the ideal conditions to paint in and I had gone out of my way to accommodate this particular gentleman’s requests. I’d agreed to work up to Christmas Eve and because they wanted to do the sitting early in the morning I left home before 8am and had a two hour drive in freezing fog. He hadn’t bothered to get out of bed. When he did, he wasn’t particularly gracious, in fact you could tell he would have rather been somewhere, anywhere else.”
Thankfully most of Todd’s other subjects, which include Prince Charles, Spike Milligan and Dame Janet Baker, have been less contentious. However, it was perhaps her irreverent edge which made her the perfect judge on BBC1’s The Big Painting Challenge. Teamed with Scottish painter Lachlan Goudie, over the six week duration of the showers viewers lost count of the times she looked over her spectacles to deliver some withering assessment of a particularly lacklustre landscape.
“It was a bit of a shock to find myself in front of the camera,” says Todd, who much prefers to be behind the easel. “The offer came completely out of the blue as the producers had been given my name by a friend of a friend. They were looking for someone who had previous teaching experience and was a general all rounder. I guess I just ticked the boxes. Years ago when I was asked to do something for radio I felt an enormous sense of trepidation, I felt like I was addressing the nation and had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I’m less fraught these days. I decided the best thing to do was to pretend the cameras weren’t there.”
While not a familiar face on television until this year, Todd, who now lives on a farm in East Sussex where she has her own studio, is well-established in the art world. Works by her hang in the National Portrait Gallery, she has a portrait drawing in the Queen’s collection and was the first female president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In 2010 she also won first prize in the BP Portrait award for a painting of her mother. Nothing particularly unusual in that, except that she did the work in the chapel of rest following her mother’s death.
“I’d painted her a few times throughout her life and I knew that I might want to do a portrait of her when she died. We talked about it and she was completely fine about it. We are generally not very good at talking about death and I know some people might think it a little odd, but to me it was perfectly natural. I did think about bringing her body home or to the studio but I couldn’t have kept it cool enough. I know it sounds like I am talking about an inanimate object, but partly that’s what it felt like. It was mum’s body, but her spirit or whatever you want to call it had gone. It was as though I was painting her shell.”
The painting was initially just a personal project, but when she decided to enter it for the BP Prize she knew that reaction to the portrait of a 100-year-old dead woman was likely to be divided.
“I thought it was poignant and moving and of course I thought the jury might like it otherwise I wouldn’t have entered it, but I did wonder if they would even consider it a portrait given the subject wasn’t alive. The only thing I’m sorry about is that it upset my brother. I think he thought it a little disrespectful and I have never any intention to upset him, I honestly did think no one else would ever see it.”
Despite the odd mild brush with controversy, Todd says she is naturally conservative with a small ‘c’. It’s always been that way, even when she attended the Slade School of Fine Art in the mid-1960s and her peers were embracing abstract experimentation.
“It was at Slade where I really learnt to look at a figure or a landscape and really analyse it.
“After the first year we were left to our own devices. At the time there was a trend towards artistic happenings and the work most of the students produced was abstract. There was a big movement towards happenings which tended to involve a pipette dripping water into some other container. I have never understood the point of that kind of art, so I just kept on painting.
“Specialising in portraiture as everyone else was doing all these off the wall projects was my own mild way of rebelling.”
While in recent years many portrait painters use photographs of their subjects, Todd has always preferred to live sittings and despite the death of portraiture having been predicted countless times over the decades she maintains the genre is still alive and well.
“It hasn’t died yet and I suspect it never will. I like to see the person I’m painting in front of me because I believe it’s the only way to get a good likeness. I have to confess that I’m no great entertainer. Anyone who has ever been painted by me will tell you that I find it impossible to keep up any social patter, I’m far too busy concentrating.
“It’s funny though being stared out for hours on end by someone with a brush in their hand making marks you can’t see can have an odd effect on people’s personality. They can start of the session perfectly quiet and by the end they are rambling like a mad man.
“When he was asked about his experience of sitting for me, Spike Milligan said it had happened in complete silence, but that’s not quite how I remember it. He spent the entire time telling scatological jokes. I thought he was just talking to me, but I later realised he was doing his usual material.”
Todd says neither of her parents were artistic and while there was talk of a cousin who painted the mills of Yorkshire in his spare time she’s not entirely sure where her own artistic bent came from. What she does know is that she has been incredibly lucky to make a living out of her art, but talent has been equalled by hard work.
She doesn’t know whether there will be a second series of the Big Painting Challenge – Scotland’s Paul Bell was crowned the winner last Sunday – but if there is you suspect she might haggle for more of say in choosing the contestants.
“Lachlan and I were initially a bit disappointed with the quality of the contestants. Six thousand people applied to be on the programme and while we both knew that they would want a cross section of people in terms of age and background we thought the standard might be a bit higher. The difficulty is the pieces they submitted were completed when they had all the time in the world. It’s very different when you have a television camera pointing at you, two hours to complete a piece and various people wanting to interrupt you to ask how you are getting on.
“It was much more time consuming than I imagined it would be – each episode took three days to film. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did overall, but painting, not judging, is what I do best.”
• Daphne Todd’s latest solo show is at Messum’s in London to April 17.