Dare to be Like

‘There’s a fairly tidy line of succession … it is a constructed way that people can remember. Genealogy constructed … the favouring of the older male …’

‘The alternative one is, which of my ancestors, because it is available to know about them, do I want to use as … my ancestral spirits. Do I want to claim their energy and their interests … a line that I feel I’m still working in, writing in.’

Visiting my friend, the poet John Hall, I noticed several historic portraits hanging in his house. It transpired that he had a line of Scottish ancestors going back to 1687 who had passed a baronetcy through the generations, and a series of portraits had been made of them. Most of these had been sold after World War I – artists had included well-established English and Scottish portrait painters such as Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn and Allan Ramsay.

But there were none of John. I suggested I could make a portrait to continue the line. Ambivalent about the baronetcy itself, John agreed to contribute to this Dialogic Portrait series. I invited the poet David Herd to join us one afternoon and painted the two of them talking together, as well as making other solo portraits.

Struggling to get a likeness that I considered worthy, the series is incomplete because of the pandemic lockdown. The last picture is unfinished because John had to make a sudden return journey to Devon. A tree had fallen on telegraph wires, disconnecting broadband for his rural neighbours. The story was of a phone company having failed for years to cooperate with John to take preventive action.

We hope at some point to resume the series.

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