Portraits Untold – redefining portrait painting for the 21st century


Portraits Untold is a visual and multimedia arts project by the acclaimed artist Tanya Raabe-Webber. There were four live-streamed interview-based portrait sittings, spread over five months. Ann Young attended the last in the series with David Hoyle at Beningborough Hall in York.

Photo of artist Tanya Raabe-Webber in front of an easel.

Tanya Raabe-Webber begins her drawing of David Hoyle at Beningborough Hall as part of Portraits Untold

Before Portraits Untold my own limited view of portrait painting was confined to scenes of impoverished artists painting the rich aristocracy in darkened rooms; a bygone age where class divisions were clearly marked.

To say that Raabe-Webber challenges such stereotypes, is an understatement. She obliterates them by stripping the whole process down to its core, then reinvents portraiture for the 21st century. If people came to the project thinking they could just watch the artist at work, they would have been mistaken.

The live audience were given a whole range of art materials including tablets with software to allow them to create digital images. Viewers online could post in their work on social media and have it traced on to the constantly evolving canvas.

When asked why she had chosen to use public spaces instead of a studio? Tanya replied “People have stared at me, all my life. Now they are staring on my terms.”

Interacting with the first three sittings with John Akomfrah, Evelyn Glennie and David Baldwin via the livestream, I found an enthusiastic online artistic community. Some, like me, followed the project throughout its life; becoming familiar voices and contributors at each sitting. Being of a certain IT illiterate generation, (according to my 20 year old son) I was dubious about livestreaming, in terms of participation, but I was surprised at how easy it was to become immersed in the events. Tanya’s workspace, far from being minimal looked more like a film set with lights, cameras and more tech than an Apple Store!

Photo of John Akomfrah sitting in an armchair as his portrait is being painted by Tanya Raabe-Webber. They are accompanied by a sign language interpreter

John Akomfrah chats to Tanya Raabe-Webber during the sitting at Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery

Each sitting was a unique experience, the only constant being the long day, punctuated by short breaks. Tanya’s professionalism and easy going interview style quickly put the sitters at ease and we were treated to in-depth discussions from John Akomfrah to impromptu performances, courtesy of Evelyn Glennie. It’s hard to imagine the prestigious paintings adorning the walls of the National Portrait Gallery were accustomed to the eerie sounds of the Water Phone. Contrast this with Neil Baldwin’s refreshing, home-spun philosophy on life at Stoke City Football Club: “Even if you are not happy, just try to be happy.” I was reminded of the Dalai Llama’s teachings.

I needed to see David Hoyle in the flesh having read so much about the man. However, nothing could prepare me for the intensity of this live event. David appeared almost vulnerable when we first met him. Softly spoken, dressed in jeans and t-shirt with intense blue eyes. Among the grandeur of the richly ornate room at Beningborough Hall, you couldn’t help but feel quite small and insignificant. Yet, over the course of the day he transformed and the room began to fill so that by twilight there were queues of people outside the door, all wanting to see David and Tanya in full ‘Prawn Cocktail’ mode.

Close up of performance artist David Hoyle, without make-up in front of a canvas.

Photo of David Hoyle during the sitting at Beningborough Hall

It wasn’t long before Tanya’s quick sketching began to resemble David’s naked, beautiful face in what he refers to, as his ‘ready salted’ look. David’s warmth and openness made it easy to ask questions about everything from his early childhood to the prospect of him running for Prime Minister, a concept which bemused him, considering his strong views on politics.

David defies convention and refuses to be boxed in stereotypical gender roles and after a lifetime of kicking at the ‘establishment’ he has not only created his own unique identity but a beautiful language to describe the world he chooses to inhabit. I don’t think this has been an easy journey yet he has found the strength to live by his beliefs and keep his integrity. When asked, at what point he felt different from other people? He replied, “The first day at school when I was told off for trying to straddle another boy.”

There is a natural performer to be found in both Tanya and David that made them a joy to watch and engage with. Free from their workaday selves their natural openness and humour became contagious and yielded some fantastic artwork from the live audience. Surrounded by silent portraits of yesteryear we are reminded of how far we have come but also how far we are still in terms of the acceptance of difference.

Performance artist David Hoyle dressed in stark make-up, yellow dress and jewelry

Photograph ‘David in Prawn Cocktail Mode’ during the sitting at Beningborough Hall

It was wonderful to see so many children at Beningborough Hall, happily drawing and playing on the floor. Hopefully they’ll remember this day and learn to value all our differences as an ordinary part of life.

Portraits Untold goes far beyond the contemporary labels of portraiture or disability arts and culture. These diverse images, spread over four unique canvases, are a true celebration of what makes us human. They explore the need in all of us, to find connections with others and to allow ourselves to be seen through our artistic expression.

The collaborative work produced is far removed from the stylised portraits of old, hanging in our galleries and museums. Yet Tanya still gives them a respectful nod. What Portraits Untold does, for me, is to go some way to filling in the gaps of our common story by painting diversity into the ever-changing picture of humanity.

You can view all the sittings by clicking on this link to the Portraits Untold website.The portraits will be revealed at National Portrait Gallery, Thursday 1st December, when all of the sitters will be brought together with Tanya for a celebration event.

Follow Portraits Untold on Twitter @portraitsuntold and Facebook