Personal hang-ups

For some, being immortalised on canvas is irresistible – but who will do the honours? Nick Foulkes paints a warts-and-all portrait of five sitters.

February 28 2011
Nick Foulkes

The American grande dame: Andy Warhol (first picture)

Grace personified, the American grande dame is the last of her kind. Beautifully mannered, exquisitely dressed and possessed of the same figure as she had before the birth of her three sons, she wafts through life on a carpet of couture gowns and charitable causes.

If she strikes you as being like a character from a novel, you are not the first. She has twice been immortalised in fiction: a thinly disguised portrait of her appeared in a novel by Dominick Dunne, and she was one of the women who felt so ill-used by Truman Capote when he skewered New York’s society ladies in La Côte Basque 1965, the extract from his unfinished novel that was published in a magazine in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, the American grande dame is a warm-hearted woman who was quick to forgive her “darling Truman”, remembering that he was kind enough to have invited her to his Black and White Ball in 1965, when she had just arrived in New York as a young divorcée from the West Coast, following the break-up of her first marriage to a philandering Hollywood agent.

It was her appearance at the ball in a particularly revealing gown, sexy mask and large (borrowed) sapphire that launched her career as an international socialite. For a while you couldn’t open a copy of W, Vogue or one of the popular newspapers without seeing a picture of her, more often than not dancing with Halston at Studio 54.

Today, she remains blissfully happily married to her second husband, an uxorious canned-food heir, and divides her time between apartments on Park Avenue and Park Lane and a sprawling Mizner-style mansion in Palm Beach, where she entertains with an almost-European perfection all winter long.

She has been 68 for many years now, and is still a striking woman with a touch of the Babe Paley about her. When guests see her at the head of a dining table set for 20, with her portrait by Warhol hanging on the wall behind her, they cannot help feeling rather jealous of both her bone structure and her husband’s bank balance.

The Cameroon: Johnny Yeo (second picture)

The Cameroon made a bit of a mistake by backing David Davis in the Conservative leadership election. However, he has more than compensated for it by seriously sucking up to the ruling cabal of the 21st-century Tory party and twisting the arms of a couple of his rich hedge-fund friends to donate to the party coffers – or at the very least cough up a few grand to join one or other of the more expensive Tory donors’ clubs.

As a result, the Cameroon was rewarded with a role as a very obscure minister of state (safely below cabinet level) in one of those compound departments called something like Information Skills and Technological Ideation that nobody outside (and one or two people inside) government really believes exists.

However, that does not stop him from behaving in an extremely(self-)important way; his tweets and blogs are models of toadying pomposity. On his website he appears – in open-necked shirt, of course – a little older and jowlier and redder in the face than his 41 years would suggest. But instead of taking exercise or cutting down on the pastries and booze, he has decided that the camera simply does not capture the noble parliamentarian and future leader of the party that is lurking within his somewhat overweight, middle-aged frame.

Accordingly, he has commissioned Johnny Yeo to create a portrait of himself and his equally red-faced wife. They are sitting for it at the moment. Once completed, this masterpiece will hang in the drawing room of their constituency home (the one on which they had to repay a couple of thousand from repairs to the stables where their daughter keeps her ponies) – provided, of course, that Yeo captures the inner statesman rather than the outer buffoon.

The dowager duchess: Oswald Birley (third picture)

The dowager duchess was one of the Famous Five, a glamorous quintet of debutantes who brightened up Britain in the drab days of the late 1940s and early 1950s. They did things like flying their own planes, going on dates with American film stars, getting photographed going to unsuitable nightclubs and occasionally landing up in court for driving the wrong way down a one-way street… as well as being presented at court.

An It Girl before her time, she was routinely described as the prettiest girl in England, a fact to which her portrait by Sir Oswald Birley attests. She was still a teenager and yet to “come out” when she was painted by the famed artist, and she recalls posing for him at his house in St John’s Wood, where he gave his sitters a damn good lunch.

She developed a fearful crush on Birley’s son, the legendary club owner Mark, but when he married Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, she finally said yes to the amiable, if rather simple, nobleman who had been asking for her hand for a year and had a huge wedding, attended by her dear friend Princess Margaret.

After the early death of her father-in-law in a hunting accident, she became a duchess and the chatelaine of a famous stately home, which she was instrumental in opening up to the public. Having produced “an heir and a spare”, she tolerated her late husband’s… ahem… gallantry towards other women, and instead turned her attention to the grounds, being awarded an OBE for her work on behalf of the National Gardens Scheme.

Today she lives in a dower house on the estate, while her portrait hangs in the drawing room of the big house (where her son now lives), along with those of earlier duchesses by the likes of Gainsborough and Millais.

The collector: Marc Quinn (fourth picture)

The collector is one of the modern colossi of the art world. Not yet 50 and possessed of a fortune derived from “raw materials” in one or other of the former Soviet republics, he was a billionaire by 30. Even more remarkable is the fact that he has pulled off the win-win of staying out of prison and out of the press.

Arnault, Pinault and Saatchi always keep an eye on what he is buying, and he’s one of the very few men in the art world who can keep Larry Gagosian holding on the other line. He is on extremely friendly terms with the likes of Schnabel, Prince, Koons et al… and seeing him progress around a major selling show such as London’s Frieze gives an idea of what it must have been like to cross the Red Sea with Moses, as crowds part to leave him space and art mavens try to scrutinise his impassive features for the slightest frown or hint of a smile that will signal a Man from Del Monte moment.

The collector understands that anyone with the potential to move the market will attract attention, but until recently his innate love of a low profile militated against him having his portrait done. However, his wife finally persuaded him to accept one as a birthday present and an artist was permitted to capture his image.

Visiting Marc Quinn’s studio a couple of years ago, he was very taken by a series of “Iris” paintings – huge canvases depicting the inside of the sitter’s eye in a manner that is both anatomical and artistic. Now the walls of their house have one of Quinn’s “Iris” paintings with the collector’s ice-blue (not to mention very discriminating) eye. The collector enjoys the work and appreciates the irony of this most discreet form of vanity.

The troubled singer-songwriter: David LaChapelle (fifth picture)

A couple of years ago, the troubled singer-songwriter seemed to have it all going for her. The critical and commercial success of her first album would have been enough to turn even the most stable person’s head… and stability is not a quality she has had much of in her life.

Her alcoholic father walked out on her mother and four siblings when she was six years old. There followed the usual series of violent and unsuitable boyfriends, along with a spell in care while the mother straightened herself out, looking for and eventually finding God in her local evangelical church. During this time the singer-songwriter held the family together, and it was her life story as much as her vocals that enabled her to win a TV talent contest.

However, things started to go wrong when her errant father reintroduced himself into her life by selling his story to one of the tabloids. Worse was to come when she was secretly photographed enjoying what looked suspiciously like a line of cocaine at an after-after-after party, following a music awards ceremony in America.

Her bad-girl image was cemented a couple of months later when a fashion magazine published David LaChapelle’s now notorious pictures of her as Mary Magdalene, wiping the feet of an R&B star with her long hair, clad only in a pair of wraparound sunglasses and a few smears of barbecue sauce (hickory wood smoke flavour, if you must know).

Her mother said that she would pray for her but not speak to her; the contract that she had signed to do the music for a major animated film evaporated; her TV advertisement for a household brand of shampoo and conditioner was pulled. Some careers benefit from such notoriety, but not hers. With her life halted, her only remaining asset is a pair of large portraits of her by LaChapelle, which will be put up for auction very soon.