A few days ago, I was very happy to share this portrait-come-caricature, drawn by the artist, Phill Hosking, to mark the occasion of my forty-sixth birthday. While I am completely mystified by the strange genre of pouting selfies, I am not immune to the satisfaction that comes from finding an image of your own face that you actually like. We’re not supposed to be too interested in our own visage, though in reality most of us are somewhat preoccupied, not by notions of our own rare and transcendent beauty, but rather by the effects upon our faces of the ravages of time. That said, I was very taken with Phill’s birthday drawing. Yes, I thought, that is me right there.
But Phill isn’t the first artist to take liberties with my features. Back in the summer of 2017, a portrait was hung on a newly restored wall in a newly restored room in a newly restored Grade 1 listed Elizabethan townhouse in Rochester, Kent – a house notable for its association with author Charles Dickens, featuring in both The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The portrait in question, featuring an esteemed former resident of the townhouse, bears an uncanny likeness to yours truly, which, at first glance, seems very odd indeed, considering the man in the painting is resplendent in the ruff and cuffs of Tudor fashion. But no, this is not some spooky instance of reincarnation, but rather a bit of historical fabulation, expertly executed by the artist, Kevin Clarkson. I’m going to let Kevin take the story from here…
Kevin Clarkson: “The portrait of Sir Peter Buck was in fact part of a larger illustration project to help tell the story of Eastgate House, a Tudor town house in Rochester, Kent, which was at that time undergoing refurbishment. The house was built for Sir Peter Buck in 1591. It now belongs to Medway Unitary Authority.
In its time, the house has been a Girls school and a museum, as well as a private dwelling. It also featured in several of Charles Dickens novels. I had been involved with a number of historical illustration projects for the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, and was approached to produce visuals for a new suite of visitor engagement graphics for Eastgate House. The oldest rooms of the house were going to be restored as far as possible to their Tudor appearance, supported with suitable information graphics. At my first meeting I learned no image of Sir Peter Buck was known to exist, so it was decided to create one to be incorporated into the graphics. I felt this was a missed opportunity; a man of Buck’s status would likely have a portrait in his home and I suggested we produce a facsimile to hang in the room, rather than be incorporated into the graphics. To my surprise the idea was immediately agreed and I realised I was now tasked with creating a convincing Tudor style portrait.
I began to research Tudor portraiture; one aspect which concerned me was costume. I knew in the later years of Elizabeth 1’s reign, she introduced “Sumptuary” laws that defined what fabrics and colours could be worn by different classes in society. I was keen not to deck Sir Peter out in the wrong kit! A frantic email to the Victoria & Albert Museum elicited a very helpful guide and a large reading list – the project was growing.
The Tudor period was almost the beginning of portrait painting as we know it, where a figure would actually resemble the individual closely, rather than being a generic face surrounded by symbols of wealth and authority. The obvious place to start was looking up Holbein and Hilliard for style and treatment, and then expand to see how portraits developed in the early 1600s, when Sir Peter would be in his prime and most powerful. From the start I was determined this was going to be a real portrait of a living breathing person; I was not going to clone an existing Tudor portrait.
I needed a sitter – but who?
This posed quite a problem, since a full beard was almost universal facial furniture in the alpha-male Tudor portrait, and although the beard is again popular, few take on the luxuriant full Tudor look and frankly the only owner of one I knew well was far too young to be Sir Peter.
The solution came from a passing conversation with my daughter, Emily. She reminded me her former Course Leader sported a beard of Tudor dimensions. I was saved – assuming Phil agreed, of course!
Portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni
I had by now surveyed the work of a range of artists of the period; my favourite by a long way was the north Italian artist, Moroni. The poses adopted in his work are very informal and natural, very like modern portraiture. Sadly artists working in northern Europe, and the UK in particular, were much more rigid in pose and reluctantly I had to select a more formal look. It was clear Phil would be far too busy to sit for the painting, so photography would have to fill the gap. I supplied a number of Tudor poses to Phil, who was able to create a range of reference photographs from which I could work.
From the series of ‘serious and imperious’ self-portraits and reference images used in the production of the final painted portrait.
Tudor portraits would have been painted in oils using linseed oil as a medium, usually on fruitwood panel or canvas stretched over a softwood frame. I could have used oil but time was against me, so acrylic on panel was my selection. Acrylics dry in minutes, whereas even fast drying oil takes far longer. When varnished, acrylic is often indistinguishable from oil paint.
Kevin’s portrait of ‘Sir Peter Buck’ takes shape.
The actual painting process was straightforward: I gridded the photograph and transcribed it to the actual size of the painting, then began blocking in the colour. One thing I was nervous about was my selection of colour. The Tudor palette would have been composed of fewer colours, and I was determined to remain within the colour vocabulary of the period. I didn’t have time to research exactly which pigments were available at Sir Peter’s time. Instead I studied the colour values of the Tudor portraits I was using for reference and hoped that would keep me in the right area.
On completion I left the painting for a few days before coming back to look with a fresh eye. I don’t think I did more than a couple of tiny adjustments before bonding the paint surface with a sealer coat of gel medium, and, when dry, a gloss acrylic varnish. The new old master was complete!
In the interests of clarity, so that a future curator would not be fooled about the provenance of Sir Peter, I inscribed the back of the painting with details of the sitter, together with the date and my signature.
Thankfully Sir Peter was well received and is now a permanent resident of Eastgate House.”
The completed portrait / Kevin Clarkson 2007
Sir Peter Buck’s portrait hanging in Eastgate House, Rochester, Kent