Her hair is brilliant the way the waves bounce. It's a shame she often
hides it with those 1930s hats -- Alison Watt
''I WAS gobsmacked when I heard -- someone like me painting someone
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The ''someone like me'' is famous young Glasgow Girl, Alison Watt;
''someone like her'' is Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother -- ''pure dead
brilliant,'' says Watt -- who today celebrates her 89th birthday at
Clarence House. Traditionally Watt's new portrait is unveiled at the
National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square. It is the first portrait of
her to be commissioned by them and the most recent acquisition since Sir
Gerald Kelly's 1938 traditional Queen Mum oil.
Watt's picture has already created controversy. A story leaked to
Nigel Dempster in the Daily Mail by ''an insider'' quoted alarmist
accounts of ''complete caricature'' and ''great royal embarrassment.''
It would appear neither Dempster nor the insider had actually seen the
portrait, which is superb -- a good likeness and a good picture.
The calm figure radiating optimism and charm is neither unduly
flattered nor distorted. The composition is strong, even daring with its
abruptly cropped mantlepiece ornaments, intrusive chair arm and
eyecatching upturned teacup. The person is unquestionably the Queen Mum;
the painter unquestionably Watt. It is an informal portrait, as domestic
in its way as Sir James Gunn's 1950 Conversation Piece, but more honest.
Definitely no compromise here.
Alison Watt catapulted to fame when she won the #10,000 John Player
Award in 1987 while still a fourth-year Glasgow School of Art student.
The prize included a commission to paint a ''well-known sitter,'' the
picture then becoming part of the National Portrait Gallery's
Amid the furore created by a ''wacky self-portrait'' (her words)
complete with teacup perched on top of her head, and the additional coup
of being the second Glasgow School of Art student in two years to snatch
the prestigious award from under the noses of more than 700 professional
portrait painters of any and every age, little did she imagine who her
sitter was to be.
Other Player Award sitters selected from the great and good include
Paul McCartney, Lord Olivier, Julian Bream and Richard and David
Attenborough. Rosemary Beaton (Glasgow's first Player Award winner)
painted Sir Robin Day. Currently Allan Ramsay (also Glasgow) is busy on
Alan Ayckbourn, the playwright -- none in the same league as regards
stress, strain, responsibility, and the high profile reaction guaranteed
from the portrayal of a royal.
''I've been well warned that there's bound to be a lot of flak from
the royal ratpack press and tabloids. It's sure to offend because it
doesn't aim to flatter,'' Watt told me. ''But it seems strange that I've
been hassled by a couple of the trustees when they commissioned me to
paint the Queen Mother in the full knowledge of exactly what my
paintings are like.''
In an effort to prepare herself and make doubly sure that the Queen
Mother was happy with the picture, Watt, who had five one-hour sittings
over a period of several months, made a sixth visit to Clarence House
recently to take tea. ''It was just the Queen Mum, me and the picture. I
gave her every opportunity to criticise it. I was desperate for
criticism. But she seemed pleased. She was especially glad I'd included
one of her favourite pictures of herself in the background.''
Right from the start Watt's main objective was to produce an informal
portrait, ''as ordinary as possible'' bearing in mind the splendours of
the surroundings. ''I requested that she didn't wear one of her hats,
and as little jewellery as possible. There was a long silence on the
other end of the phone!'' In the event the Queen Mother went along with
''I loved her dress, the large silky and matt spots were quite
adventurous. And her hair is brilliant the way the waves bounce. It's a
shame she often hides it with those 1930s hats. But I couldn't quite get
to grips with the fact that the huge diamonds she wears are real and not
from Butler and Wilson.''
At the first sitting, Watt was presented with ''a great throne thing
on velvet but I soon got them to take that away.'' She proceeded to
paint the Queen Mother, propped up on a great, grey tassled cushion in a
comfortable, if fairly regal Louis XVI-style chair, her shawl flung
casually over the lion's head embellishment.
''I sat her by a window where there was lots of light. The room was so
full of wonderful pictures, Van Dyke, Augustus John -- she has a
fabulous collection, so we had plenty to talk about. She is obviously a
great gallerygoer. She's been to all the current Royal Academy and Tate
exhibitions and is very well informed about them, really on the ball.
''She asked me about the shows I'd seen. And she was very keen on
knowing about Glasgow School of Art. She was very kind, too, and if I
didn't know what was on at which London gallery, or what time they shut,
she sent her staff off to check for me.''
Watt says she is a slow worker but always begins with a colour sketch,
never a drawing. However, at Clarence House she began straight on to the
white canvas. I just battered into it. The face formed very early on. I
tend to start from the eyes and work outwards.''
Watt prefers to paint her friends and fellow graduates, people she
knows well. ''Commissions are a bit of an ordeal. I do as few as
possible.'' After the face she heads straight for the hands. ''I am
obsessed with hands. It really offends me if artists fudge the hands.
Often they look like claws. I found it very difficult to paint the Queen
Mother's hands because she moved them quite a bit as she talked. But I
know it's problem.''
Watt's father is a painter, too -- ''When I got to Glasgow Art School
I expected everyone to have an artistic background. It seemed normal.''
At art school, then as now, she always thought and worked in colour.
''I can't use a pencil, it's so restricting. The thinnest thing I can
work with is a stick of pastel. I still use thick brushes when I
probably should take smaller ones. I only use a fine brush to pull it
all together at the end.''
Glasgow lecturer, Geoff Squire, was a great influence. ''So was
Barbara Rae because she was a very tough critic and we needed that.''
The judges found her award-winning Self Portrait with Tea Cup ''an
extremely sophisticated and witty work, full of mysterious ambiguity,
wonderfully atmospheric.'' A recent self portrait plus scissors and rose
is similarly witty but with a touch of cynicism. Still life props: egg
cups, a flowerpot loaf from the local delicatessen also traditionally
feature in her work. Indeed, her figures often hold bowls and dishes --
even a plate of bacon. Some of these pictures were seen last November in
She has no intention of moving away from Glasgow (indeed has just
bought a flat) and is currently working towards a new show to be held at
the London branch of the Scottish Gallery in March 1990. Like it or not,
the Queen Mother's portrait has put her on the map, and having seen some
of the new paintings currently in her Glasgow studio, I predict Alison
Watt is a name to be reckoned with.
And the upturned teacup? ''It was the only thing of mine, the only bit
of me that I could put in the picture.''