The large (six feet by three) oil painting shows the actress in jacket and trousers sitting in a bare studio on a draped chair which is placed on an intriguing trompe-l’oeil platform.
The sittings began in 2011 and took place at the artist’s studio in Southwark. Lloyd started by working on sketches, in both oil and charcoal, and took photographs to determine the pose he wanted. He settled on one in which Dame Maggie was seated cross-legged, her head tilted to rest on a raised hand, with her eyes looking out at the viewer.
Lloyd made a plinth to raise her to eye level when seated, a small platform painted with an illusory cube pattern he often uses, in this case to convey a feeling of the stage. The tumbling drapery catches the light as it falls, adding, he says, ‘a certain monumentality to an otherwise ordinary studio chair’.
Having painted actors in the past, Lloyd was aware that if the painting process went on long enough sitters’ appearances were liable to change according to the roles they were currently playing. In this instance, Dame Maggie turned up to one sitting with peroxide blonde hair (she had started work on the film Quartet directed by Dustin Hoffman). Lloyd could have included this but he decided to go with her previous hair colour, in keeping, he says, with the tone of the portrait.
I was delighted to be asked by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Dame Maggie Smith: not only because this was an opportunity to have a third painting in the Gallery’s Collection, but also for the honour of trying to portray such a luminary of stage and film. I learnt that Dame Maggie had been reluctant to have her portrait painted in the past, and at my first meeting with her, her opening words were, “Poor you”. This was quite the opposite from my own feelings, and everyone to whom I mentioned the commission was extremely envious – I lost count of the number of people who offered to make tea during the sittings!
It is a large canvas but I don’t think it’s flashy. I was after a certain understated grandeur. The background is quite stark, and apart from the patterned floor there is little colour bar the neutral greys and browns. This directs the concentration on to the warm flesh tones of the face. And with a face and character like Dame Maggie Smith’s that’s definitely more than enough.
Note on the painter:
James Lloyd (b. 1971) held the Paul Smith Scholarship at the Slade School of Art and in 1997 won first prize n the BP Portrait Award as well as the Ondaatje Prize for portraiture in 2008. Lloyd has exhibited internationally, most recently at the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, and his work is held within collections including those of the House of Commons and Kunsthalle, Mannheim. His portrait of Dame Maggie is the third to enter the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection. His previous portraits were of Sir Paul Smith (the commission awarded to him as part of his first prize in the BP Portrait Award 1997) and David Alec Gwyn Simon, Baron Simon of Highbury (both 1998). For more on James’s work please see his website jameslloyd.org.uk or BBC Your Paintings www.bbc.co.uk/arts/
Dame Maggie Smith by James Lloyd, 2012 © National Portrait Gallery, London; commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery with the support of J.P. Morgan through the Fund for New Commissions, 2012
Dame Maggie Smith by James Lloyd is in Room 35 in the Ground floor Lerner Contemporary Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from Tuesday 9 April, Admission free.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.