Art | Wry Society

The portrait

An aspirational wife bent on buying instant provenance for her family turns to a Californian friend for portrait commissioning.

March 12 2012
Adam Edwards

It was over lunch with her Californian confidante Pierre Escalade, at the Fifth Floor Restaurant of Harvey Nichols, that Annabelle Fall mooted the idea of a portrait as a 50th-birthday present for her financier husband, Charles.

The painting of Charles and Annabelle – and the dog, of course – in the garden of the family’s Georgian-style East Sussex manor house would sit well in the living room, she said, and furthermore it would give Charles, a man who as the late MP Alan Clark said of Lord Heseltine “had had to buy his own furniture”, a tangible piece of family history. However, the fine art expertise of Annabelle, who was not the sharpest knife in the box, had until then been limited to lifelike paintings of horses that she had owned, a couple of inherited seascapes and a lithograph by Andy Warhol of a Campbell’s soup can.

But with the help of a bohemian chum who worked in an East Grinstead art gallery she managed to compile a list of portrait artists who had “done” society figures. There was, for example, Jonathan Yeo, who, to great critical acclaim, had painted Tony Blair. Helen Masacz had caught London mayor Boris Johnson brilliantly, and sitters for Daphne Todd, the first woman president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, had included Tom Stoppard and the late Spike Milligan. Annabelle even jotted down Jenny Saville, whose work has been likened to that of Lucian Freud, and the television star Rolf Harris – while she knew he had painted the Queen, she was still not quite sure if she wanted his work on her wall.

Pierre, who thought himself an expert in all things artistic but, more importantly, knew Annabelle and her social-climbing bent well, greeted her list with derision. She needed a modern artist whose work was traditional rather than anyone connected to the Young British Artist movement, which he pointed out was “so 1990s”. Instead, he recommended an American friend of his, Jeb Poindexter, whose recent portrait of the late Elizabeth Taylor embracing Michael Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles, had been the talk of Malibu’s Contemporary Art Fair.

After a study of Poindexter’s website, which included a score of lifelike portraits of Hollywood names that Annabelle knew well from her reading of celebrity magazines, she agreed that Jeb would be ideal. He would not paint a warts-and-all canvas of two pasty-faced suburbanites. He would, to judge by his portfolio, see – as she did – a grand English couple with a touch of glamour.

Even so, it was not going to be an easy commission. Firstly, the portrait needed to be kept secret from Charles. Secondly, Annabelle was uncommonly vain, and thirdly, although this did not seem important at the time, Jeb Poindexter had never been to Britain.

Jeb’s first experience of London was in late November when he flew in to do the first rough drawings at the couple’s South Kensington flat. The sittings were done, at Annabelle’s insistence, only after she had spent the morning at the gym. Charles was not so lucky. His image was to be copied from a mixture of wedding and holiday photos given to Jeb by Annabelle, who had also suggested the artist use a standard picture of a Labrador to depict the family dog, Coleman.

Three months later Pierre collected the painting from California and took it back to the UK. After a severe flight delay and a cancelled train, he was running very late but arrived in East Sussex just in time to unveil the portrait at Charles’s big birthday bash. Twinkling with self-importance, Pierre pulled the black cloth from the large canvas, which he’d put on an easel in pride of place in the marquee.

It was only then that it occurred to Annabelle that while Jeb may have been perfectly capable of painting Hollywood stars at their villas, it was a mistake for him never to have met Charles, and to have never been to East Sussex. For the result (much to the merriment of the assembled guests) was a portrait of Annabelle jogging around a palm-fringed swimming pool dogged by a black Labrador (Coleman – as in mustard, not as in coal – was yellow) and attended by a man who looked like a New York waiter in a morning suit. The painting was entitled Charles and Annabelle: The Fall in East Sussex.

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