Spitting Image
Artists & Illustrators|December 2020
Applauded for bringing portraiture back into fashion, JONATHAN YEO talks to REBECCA BRADBURY about overcoming adversity, making mistakes and painting VIPs
JONATHAN YEO

If you’re not already familiar with the portraits of Jonathan Yeo, you will certainly have heard of his sitters. The 49-year-old artist has painted some of the most influential people of our time, ranging from political heavyweights such as the former prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron to royalty – he has painted official commissions of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall – to Hollywood A-listers including Nicole Kidman, Helena Bonham Carter and Jude Law.

Forget coming face to face with these big names in real life, Jonathan’s portraits are even more likely to stop you in your tracks. In what the National Portrait Gallery describes as a combination of “photographic realism and a painterly touch”, the artist has given traditional portraiture a 21st-century makeover while achieving the holy grail of the genre: capturing the essence of his subject’s personality.

With this roll call of sitters that reads like the guest list to a fantasy dinner party, it must be impossible to pick a favourite. “It’s like trying to choose between my children,” Jonathan agrees. “I have an attachment to many of them in many different ways. There are ones where it’s been an amazing privilege to paint such as [Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist] Malala Yousafzai or David Attenborough. Then there are other ones which turned into an interesting collaboration, like when I painted Damien Hirst. Others mean a lot to me because they’re part of the way I evolved as an artist. The first proper commission I did when I was 23, of [Anglican bishop and anti-apartheid activist] Trevor Huddleston, was more important than anything from the point of view that it gave me just enough reason to keep going in portraiture at a time when I might have given up.”

For an artist who has staged multiple solo shows and has been commissioned by the Queen, it’s hard to imagine a time when Jonathan could have considered packing it in.

Yet the rise from self-taught artist to one of the world’s most in-demand portrait painters has had its hurdles.

Born in London (where he still lives and works) in 1970, the son of the former Conservative MP Tim Yeo, Jonathan found himself wrestling with the academic ideals of Westminster School. Disgruntled teachers would reprimand him for drawing on his notebook during lessons, but it all made sense when the artist was diagnosed with ADHD 10 years ago. He belatedly discovered doodling can help those with the disorder maintain concentration, for example, when listening in class.

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