The Beginning Sketching Out
I was born into an ordinary working class family. My father was a baker as was my grandmother was before him, and this always made people smile when they found out. He and my mother were always busy, but always encouraging too, and nobody ever assumed I would follow in their footsteps.
I first became interested in drawing at a very young age. At the age of 8 I produced my first London cityscape featuring Big Ben and I can still remember the fuss my teacher made about it. I was encouraged to create cartoons and comics, then to work on more serious pictures.
My grandmother was a towering figure in my early life; she believed I could do anything and that it was her job to make sure I did. She was a great character and role model and has had a huge influence of me and how I work. I am conscientious, meticulous and never let anything divert me when I have set out to achieve something, so she did a great job. She started to push me and my work and I can best describe her behaviour as being like that of an agent! Like all grandparents she enjoyed showing off her grandchild, but unlike most, she insisted on an audience far beyond family and friends. Thanks to her an early drawing I did of Roy of the Rovers was exhibited during Holmfirth Art Week alongside paintings from a range of serious local artists.
I drew anything and everything – whatever interested me. This attitude to art has stayed with me right up to the present. I really believe that you develop a style but have to reason to limit yourself to one particular genre. I copies pictures from magazines, painted and sketched on school field trips, drew my friends, and generally kept busy with a pencil or paintbrush.
In 1995 when Britart was at the forefront of the nation’s cultural awareness I decided that I wanted to go to art school in Bradford. My own ambition was very different from the established group of Young British Artists (YBAs) and my preferred style of realism meant I was swimming against the tide. Some of my lecturers tried to persuade me to rethink some of my attitudes but eventually conceded that it was better to paint in a genuine way than to manufacture a style purely to fit into the expectations of those around you.
Throughout art school I was always the first one in the studio and the last to leave. I had a very strong work ethic – probably thanks to my fearsome grandmother – and was extremely dedicated to learning and improving as an artist. I made many trips to London and spent time in front of famous old masters copying them again and again, trying to get to the bottom of their extraordinary accuracy.
When I finished my fine art degree I had my first opportunity to show my work, participating in a strong graduate show. A lot of influential people came including gallery owners, collectors and dealers, and I discovered that I had an instinct for identifying interesting people and making contacts.
Turning the Corner
It was at my first show that I made the initial contact with Leeds United Football Club which was to be the first big break of my career. A dealer from Leeds came to our graduation show and offered me a commission to paint the great Billy Bremner. Billy was a Scottish player who was most famous for his captaincy of Leeds in the 1960s and 1970s. He has been voted Leeds’ greatest player of all time and was included in the Football League 100 Legends list. When I met the dealer in 1997, Billy had just died, and the commission was a huge honour.
This commission inspired me to create an exhibition of Leeds United through the ages. I was offered sponsorship from a local building society and put the series of paintings together over a period of weeks. On opening night I sold six paintings and was absolutely thrilled, as my dream of becoming a professional artist came one step closer.
The experience with Leeds gave me the idea of writing to football clubs with my CV to see whether anyone would like to commission me. I was delighted to get a very positive response, particularly from Celtic and Manchester United. I talked to lots of people and found myself being introduced around, and to my absolute amazement I received a fabulous invitation from the Professional Footballers’ Association (the PFA). They were interested in appointing an official artist, and having seen the Leeds paintings they offered me the position.
This gave me a stronger platform on which to base my letters and I redoubled my efforts, contacting galleries and institutions and entering art competitions. Through this I was invited to participate in a show in New York celebrating art of the British Millennium at the DFN Contemporary Art Gallery. They took more pieces on consignment, but I wasn’t concerned about the money – I just wanted to build a profile. The following year they were to host an exhibition of my still life paintings which felt like a huge achievement. Back in England I visited the Chamber of Commerce who suggested I approach the Prince’s Trust, thus providing the impetus for one of the most important and long-standing relationships of my career.
I qualified for a Prince’s Trust loan to start my business. The more dealings I had with the Trust the more obvious it became that as well as them doing something great for me, it was just possible I could do something great for them. I have a huge admiration for their aims and their immense achievements and wanted to be part of this amazing organisation on a different level. Over the years I have worked closely with the Trust on many projects and they have auctioned many original paintings at their events.
I kept on looking for open doors, and managed to get my work into the Great Yorkshire Show. Here I met the great and good of the county including Prince Charles, and as soon as I got home I wrote him a letter. I suggested painting a portrait of him for his 60th birthday and amazingly he loved the idea. I worked incredibly hard on the painting and was delighted when it went on display at St James’s Palace.
From Mayfair to Downing Street
Alongside this I continued to knock on gallery doors, and one day walked into a gallery that was looking for an artist to fulfil portrait commissions. They liked my work and I painted several of their clients, including British businessman Gerald Ratner and actor Nigel Havers.
I was also offered the chance to exhibit at the Mall Galleries and it was through this that I met Bill Patterson. Patterson’s Gallery is situated on Albermarle Street in the heart of Mayfair and when they decided to display my work, it felt as if I’d moved into a different league. Mayfair holds a very special place in Britain’s art world and its wonderful galleries make a huge contribution to the cultural life of the country, so I was very proud that my work had found a home there, and even more delighted when it began to sell.
After graduation I had moved back to Bradford and was selling through a variety of local galleries who were extremely supportive. I was keen however to take more control and decided to open a gallery of my own on Victoria Road in Saltaire, in an area with a reputation for its artistic connections – the gallery was just down the road from David Hockney’s home.
I was able to fund this enterprise through the sale of my work. At this stage my pastels and olds were selling from between £1,000 and £3,000 in Yorkshire and London and after a lot of hard work the gallery opened in 2001. I used the gallery to showcase my own work and to support other local artists with exhibitions.
Around this time my sporting portraits began to take centre stage. I was invited by the PFA to create an exhibition for the Walker Stadium and led Gordon Taylor who was to become an important figure in my life. I also met Richard Bevan, the Chief Executive of the Professional Cricket Association and through him was commissioned to create pencil portraits of all the county captains to be reproduced as limited editions. This was a great moment both in terms of raising my profile as an artist and financially.
It was during a local fundraising event in Huddersfield that I met Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield. He introduced me to some very interesting people including the curator from the House of Lords. We got talking about the possibility of my painting a portrait of Prime Minister Tony Blair for the House. I had recently seen en exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery featuring past prime ministers, and I had thought at the time that it would be great challenge to portray someone so high profile and try to being my own interpretation. I got to work and created the portrait and then sent it off with my heart in my mouth. I received a fantastic letter of thanks from Cherie Blair which included the lines “Thank you so much for your wonderful portrait of Tony. We like it very much and have hung it on our wall” which meant the world to me.
In 2005 I was honoured to receive the award for Yorkshire Young Achiever of the Year. This led to some terrific press coverage and from that came more portrait commissions, including model Nell McAndrew and Chariman of the FA Premier League Sir Dave Richards.
Having always been a great lover of sport I was getting a huge kick out of making so many sporting connections, but one of the most exciting involved horses. At an event run by Leeds City Council I was asked to be a delegate for the city on a trip to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. This was an immense experience, representing Yorkshire at one of the world’s premier sporting occasions. I was blown away by the grace and beauty of the horses, not to mention their size, and naturally I felt the urge to get painting.
My equestrian portraits were widely viewed and led to some exciting commissions from a London dealer including one to paint the incredible Dubai Millennium from the Godolphin Stables. I created a large oil on canvas which was later seen by a member of Bahrain royal family who invited me to paint the Royal Arabian Studs of Bahrain. This unique collection of pure-bred Arabian horses had been preserved on the island for over 200 years by the rulers of Bahrain, and painting these magnificent animals was a huge privilege.
Amidst my tapping away on the computer sending out my letters, I contacted Lloyds suggesting that they may wish to sponsor an exhibition in support of the Prince’s Trust. They had just initiated a major corporate hospitality programme at the time called the Art of Wealth. They were planning to work with a portfolio of artists putting on exhibitions and giving a percentage to a nominated charity. My timing on this particular letter was impeccable as they signed me up as their first artist.
These exhibitions took place at big events such as Goodwood, the Windsor Horse Show or the Lloyds Ball at Grosvenor House. This was a fantastic opportunity for me and I saw it as a chance not only to create my best work for the exhibitions but also to meet people who I could paint or who could open doors for me. The first one that came my way through Lloyd’s was to meeting Lewis Hamilton and painting him so not a bad start!
In 2009 Lloyds were signed up as the banking partner for the 2012 London Olympic Games which led to my personal appointment as an official artist to the games. Then in 2010 BT, the Olympics communications partner launched their Art of Sport programme and suddenly my world was taken over by sport. I was introduced to some amazing Olympic and Paralympic athletes and have created a series of portraits which have made me proud to be British. These were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and will now be in the Olympic village.
One I particularly enjoyed was of Olympic gold medallist Ed Clancy who is definitely not known for sitting still. Ed was part of the British men’s cycling pursuit team who rode to glory at the Beijing Games. He came to my studio and it was great to meet someone who had been a part of putting British cycling so firmly on the map. I was also honoured to paint many other athletes including the great Daly Thompson and double gold winner Dame Kelly Holmes.
2008 was an incredible year for me for two reasons. The first of these was meeting someone who was to change my life at the Edinburgh Festival, where I was working at the Lloyds HQ on George Street as artist in residence. Amongst the stream of art collectors coming in and out, there was one person who stood out from the crowd – my wife Abi.
Also that year I exhibited with Lloyds at the Windsor Horse Show, as this was where I had my first conversation about the biggest event of my life as an artist. I introduced myself to Joseph Dublin who was head of corporate fundraising at the Royal British Legion. They were already thinking of ways to celebrate their 90th anniversary and a portrait of their patron was being discussed. Of course their patron is the Queen, and before I knew what was happening I was in the middle of a conversation discussing sittings at Buckingham Palace.
A commission to paint Her Majesty, not only an incredible person but also the most famous woman in the world, is something every portrait artist must dream of. I was completely staggered and even now, after the portrait has been painted and unveiled, I can’t quite believe that I have had such an amazing experience. It has been the greatest honour of my career.
I studied previous portraits of the Queen and drew on my knowledge of historical royal portraits from Western European art. I visited the room where the sittings were due to take place and several times and was struck by the way the light filled the room and accentuated the historic regal objects within it. My attention was also caught by the Queen Victoria Memorial which could be seen through the window.
When the time came, it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to meet the Queen in person. She was extremely gracious and charming, and when she found out that my wife Abi had accompanied me and was looking round the Palace, she invited her to join us.
The Queen’s wristwatch is set at 11am, the moment at which the nation observes Remembrance and the spray of five poppies on her brooch highlights the poppy as the ultimate symbol of the debt we owe. I felt it was essential to make this idea central to the portrait as I am acutely aware of the wonderful work the legion does for our service men and women.
It was obviously important to me that the Legion, having commissioned the portrait, would be pleased with it, and I was delighted with their reaction. The National President Sir John Kiszely described it as remarkably realistic, and commented that it conveyed the special relationship between the Royal British Legion and the British Monarchy.
The portrait was unveiled at a commemorative service in Westminster Abbey in Autumn 2011 by Princess Anne which was a great moment. I have to confess that the press coverage made me smile – the general feeling seemed to be slight surprise to have a realistic portrait that actually looked like the Queen. Apparently Her Majesty was satisfied which I have taken as the royal seal of approval!