Portraiture in Western art has its roots in Ancient Greece and Rome, where sculptors and painters created lifelike depictions of their rulers, politicians, philosophers, and other notable individuals. Over the centuries, portraiture has developed to serve many other purposes, from simply capturing the physical likeness of the sitter, to conveying their social status, character, or even as political propaganda.
Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery has dug into their own extensive collection of portraits to bring us a fascinating exhibition: ‘Now You See Me’. In the gallery, you will find a rich variety of artworks from across the ages, ranging from traditional portraits to modern works. The collection spans from one of the oldest works in the Mercer’s collection, a portrait of Arthur Slingsby dating from 1588, to the most recent acquisition, a beautiful and eerie photographic work Pool (2010) by Irish artist Dorothy Cross.
Within the exhibitions general theme of portraiture, there are deliberate yet subtle groupings of pieces. Deducing these can add greatly to the appreciation of the show.
Of particular note is the series of portraits from the artist Eva Leigh Walker, who lived in Harrogate from the 1930s to the 1980s. There is little information about this mysterious artist, though one of the former curators Pat Clegg, recalled that Eva lived in an apartment in the Grosvenor Buildings in Crescent Road and spent most of her days sitting over a tea or coffee (sketch book in hand) in the warmth of the Royal Baths. Her portraits are striking, with an accomplished technique and a lightness of touch, where she beautifully captures the woman of the time with great sensitivity.
The exhibition includes paintings and portraits of local figures of past and present such as Teatime at Haworth with the Brontës (1981) by Sonia Lawson. This piece is part of a series developed in homage to Yorkshire’s great literary family, the Brontës. Lawson imagines the three Brontë sisters gathered around their parsonage home table where they worked, read and dined. We are drawn into the work by its light tones and sweet-shop colour scheme, but further contemplation reveals heavier themes. There are simple marks that may indicate a Christian cross, the central figure might be wearing a crown of thorns, perhaps there are overtones of a last supper. These undefined suggestions take us to an altogether different place.
More recent Harrogate history is celebrated with Matthew Wyatt’s enigmatic Portrait of Malcolm Neesam (To Be Of Service), (2022). Matthew had the honour of painting this portrait in the months leading up to the much-loved local historian’s death. Malcolm is shown in a tender and humble light with the place left vacant beside him on his couch, almost inviting us to sit and chat with him. The non finito technique points to Malcolm’s work not being finished merely by his death, that his legacy continues.
There are some pieces curated around the idea of the male versus female gaze using brilliant juxtaposition. Dame Laura Knight’s, Ready For Rehearsal (c1930’s), depicts two young athletic dancers, preparing to perform - a picture of strength revealed through the female gaze. Hanging just nearby is Howard Somerville’s distinctly male gaze in The Artists’ Model (1912). His more traditional view of the feminine ideal contrasts starkly with Knight’s.
Modern portraiture has evolved to be more expressive and conceptual than times past. While artists continue to experiment with new techniques and styles, the goal of capturing the essence of the sitter remains the same. So, contemporary portraiture can be stylized or abstract and is often used to comment on social and political issues. We see examples of this through Eileen Cooper’s work Touchstone (1993), where she expands the concept of traditional portraiture with her autobiographical work that stretches into universal, timeless themes of womanhood and the human experience.
In so many ways, portraiture reflects the culture and values of a particular time and place, and will continue to evolve as long as people are fascinated by the human form and the power of artistic expression. An artist’s materials and techniques may change and develop, but the human face is a universal feature that remains a constant fascination to artists.
Come and see history, and yourself, reflected in these paintings at the Mercer Gallery.
The Mercer Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 to 16:00
Swan Road Harrogate North Yorkshire HG1 2SA
Header Image: Pool (2010) Dorothy Cross