Schön! sits down with Stuart Pearson Wright, one of Britain’s most cherished portrait painters.
Winning the 2001 BP Portrait Award aged 25, Stuart Pearson Wright now counts the likes of John Hurt, J.K. Rowling, Keira Knightley and Michael Gambon as his sitters and collectors. While always incorporating humour and theatricality, Wright’s distinctive aesthetic and visionary style have continuously garnered him critical acclaim from the art world.
Wright’s earliest memory of painting was the pungent smell of linseed oil emanating from his mother’s paint boxes. It wasn’t until the age of 14 that he first attempted painting with oils, and quickly realised how challenging the properties of the traditional medium were. “It was incredibly difficult at first,” recalls Wright, “but I persevered and the rest…was history.”
An important moment in this history involved bumping into John Hurt in Old Compton Street in London’s Soho. Hurt was playing a role in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Wright was due to see the play the following week (Beckett being one of his major influences) and hoped to catch the actor outside the stage door afterwards. “I wouldn’t call it a ‘chance encounter’ because that makes it sound too easy,” he says. “I had just come from art school, I had no back-up plan and I had no wealthy parents or anything like that. I had to survive as an artist or I was fucked. So I didn’t wait for the opportunity to come to me, I actively sought it out.”
Wright introduced himself to Hurt and was invited to the play, where he found himself in a dressing room with Hurt and Richard Harris. He showed Hurt a three inch square portrait he was carrying in his pocket and it was then that he said yes to sitting. Little did either of them know it would change Wright’s career forever. It was this portrait that garnered him the BP Portrait Award and caught the attention of the National Portrait Gallery, where he would eventually be asked to paint the author of the globally successful Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling. “It was mutual,” Wright, explains. “I was given a shortlist and she was given portfolios and we ultimately chose each other.”
The artist’s first meetings with the world-famous author were steeped in nervousness, but after a couple of sittings they warmed to each other: “I painted and drew her in her house. She is a very private and family-orientated woman and at the time was still in the early days of learning how to deal with her fame.” He also had the rare opportunity to sketch Rowling in a café while she was writing the fourth installment of the internationally successful series. “It was interesting to be observing her doing something and knowing that what she was writing was already iconic. I was able to capture history as it was being made.”
Many describe Wright’s work as photo realism, with a strange twist of caricature, but he believes it to be more personal, as a stigmatism in his eye is responsible for the surreal lengthening and exaggerations of the angles of his sitters. “My vertical vision is stronger than my horizontal, so I have a tendency to focus on long and thinner rather than round and fat,” he explains.
Wright is continually inspired by perspective and the way we create and toy between two-dimensional and three-dimensional versions of storytelling. He believes that photography is only one way of seeing the world and that it has become overused in painting. His latest body of work is currently in progress and does rely on photography, but follows his subject over a 24 hour period, taking photographs from the time they rise until the time they fall asleep. His goal is to create 50 paintings based on these.
Being heavily influenced by cinema and theatre, Wright counts filmmaker David Lynch as one of his major inspirations, and even culture as lowbrow as the television programme The Incredible Hulk, which he believes taught him everything he knows about existentialism. He does make it clear that no singular influence ever dominates the entire nature of his piece. “It’s like a beef stew,” he says. “You start with some beef and potatoes (which is what you already had in your head), add some carrots that may be cinema, add a bit of pepper which might come from a piece of music you are inspired by, and you end up with a traditional meal with an entirely different flavour because it is a combination of all these different elements.”
Stuart Pearson Wright is represented by Riflemaker, London, and his work regularly on display in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery.