The portrait

A barrister is flattered into sitting for a Royal Academician, but should he have canvassed opinion before agreeing?

Image: www.phildisley.com

When Jake Bartby first asked Frank if he’d consider sitting for him, Frank – though keeping his features carefully composed – danced an internal jig. Nobody had ever thought Frank’s likeness worth preserving – not unless you counted the slightly stiff family photograph they had taken when the children were little, and which was still hanging, blown up too big, in the library.

But Jake Bartby… this was prestige. The man was an RA. He had work in the National Portrait Gallery. He even had an entry on Wikipedia. They’d met, once or twice, at the Hamiltons’ pre-Christmas drinks – Bartby, many years after his 1960s heyday in Notting Hill, having settled in Gloucestershire. But to get this note out of the blue – and then Bartby’s cigarette-roughened voice on the follow-up call… “A distinguished subject,” Bartby had called him – and why shouldn’t he be, preened Frank, thinking of his time at the bar, his chairmanship of this and that, his charity work. And he’d talked about how interesting he found his face.

Of course, Frank said yes. The sittings had gone well: Bartby worked fast and talked jovially. Frank tried not to be too impressed when Bartby talked about getting stoned with The Beatles (“nice boys”) as he darted back and forth, measuring proportion with thumb on brush, wiping paint on his smock and attacking the canvas again. The oils went down in thick impasto.

No more than a couple of months later, Bartby announced the painting done. Looking at it for the first time, Frank was – well, taken aback. It certainly had something of a likeness – but the skin was marmalade orange, the hair a swirl of black and purple. My nose, Frank thought, looks a lot like a teaspoon. And is one of my eyes really that much bigger than the other?

“I’m very pleased,” said Bartby. “I really think it captures you.”

“Oh, er, yes,” said Frank, who knew nothing about art. “It’s very… alive.”

Bartby gave him a look that connoted a newfound respect. “Le mot juste,” he said. “You have it exactly.” And seeing how Frank really got the picture, Bartby decided he’d so like him to have it. No, Bartby insisted: he could get a lot for it in the open market, but he’d rather see it in Frank’s home. He’d take a fraction of what it was worth, he said. And Frank – his fatal mistake – asked him to name a figure.

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Which is how Frank, who had had no intention of actually buying the damn thing, ended up writing a cheque approximately three times bigger than he told his wife. And yet, he reflected, hanging in his house was now a genuine piece of art history: a legacy, an investment.

Or so he thought, until a few weeks later during a dinner party at the Streeps – he was the drummer in an old prog-rock band, she was an actress-turned-interior designer – when, between the salmon mousse and the boeuf strog, he found himself face to face with a huge, swirling purple likeness of Arthur Streep on the wall of the downstairs loo.

“You’ve got a Bartby!” he said to Arthur, dismayed, on emerging.

“God, yes. You’ll find one in practically every big house from here to the Mendips,” chuckled Arthur. “Canny old operator, Bartby. He used to go through Who’s Who looking for sitters, and when he got to Z he moved onto stately homes. Nowadays anyone with a bit of cash will do. Landed me like a prize trout, I must say.”

Frank said nothing. But he did not share Arthur Streep’s good-natured equanimity. On returning home, a few more glasses of red wine down than he might usually have been, he stared at the orangey monstrosity on his dining-room wall.

Before he had left that evening, it had seemed a tribute to his own eminence and good taste. Now it seemed to mock him – boggle-eyed and spoon-nosed. Only the memory of what it had cost prevented him from putting a toasting fork through it there and then. The following morning, he resolved, he would call Bartby and demand that he buy it back.

He woke with a snarling hangover and his resolution intact. Right until he caught the tail end of the Today programme, and the words “…contemporary of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, who has died…” And then he sat down, and giving small thanks to the Lord, fetched the Yellow Pages to look for the name of an art dealer.

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