Jonathan Yeo has faced considerable adversity to become the eminent portrait painter of his generation. His representative works are often controversial depictions of willing subjects. Jonathan believes this direction is verified by the proliferation of photography; in a 2011 interviewwith The Guardian newspaper he said “If you paint a portrait and it’s massively flattering, the artist is going to look as if they are not doing their job properly – and the subject is going to look like they are on a vanity trip. If you are after a truth from a portrait, you want it to do something a photo can’t. A painting has to have a sense of time passing in it. A photo captures a moment. A painting can’t compete with that. At the same time, a photo can’t compete with the assimilation of information that a painter does.”
Further bravura use of collage, and unorthodox subject matter such as patients undergoing cosmetic surgery, have sealed Jonathan’s position as one of the most resonant British artists, let alone portrait painters, working today.
Born in 1970, Jonathan is entirely self-taught, having taken up painting during a lengthy and painful recovery from Hodgkin’s disease in his early 20s. He himself has pointed out in newspaper interviews that portrait painting was considered highly unfashionable when he began work in the late 1990s.
Jonathan’s first major project was as official portrait painter of the 2001 British general election, commissioned by the House of Commons itself. Proportional Representation, a triptych of the three major political party leaders at the time, caused considerable controversy by representing them in sizes according to their popularity. His commissions began to gather force, leading to a catholic mix of sittings by, for example, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, actress Minnie Driver and artist Grayson Perry. During this period Jonathan became one of only three artists asked to paint a portrait by noted artistic patron Dennis Potter, the others being Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel. In 2005 Jonathan’s portrait of androgynous supermodel Erin O’Connor was used to promote London’s National Portrait Gallery. A famous 2008 portrait of Tony Blair shows the former prime minister and incumbent during the Iraq War looking world-weary and wearing a poppy flower, a traditional tribute to British soldiers killed in battle.
It was due to a cancelled commission from US presidential incumbent George W Bush that Jonathan began working with Lazarides in 2008. Perturbed by the notorious leader’s change of heart, the artist produced a large close-up of Bush Jnr’s face assembled entirely from clippings cut from hardcore pornographic magazines. The work was unveiled in the window of Lazarides’ Soho gallery in London. Thus began Jonathan’s acclaimed Blue Period of similar works that pay tribute to the artist’s talent – a grave indicator of his considerable talent and mastery of the form. Jonathan has said that he was compelled into the project after fathering two young girls, consequently noting the proliferation of sexualised imagery in Western culture. Other subjects covered in the Blue Period included public virgin and well-established pop singer Cliff Richard, morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, actor and former “Gubernator” of California Arnold Schwarzenegger (for whom Jonathan used gay pornography), Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and portrait painter Lucien Freud, in what was seen as a tongue-in-cheek passing of the torch between generations. Blue Period was followed up with Porn in the USA, a Los Angeles exhibition organised by Lazarides featuring new collages of golfer Tiger Woods, populist politician Sarah Palin, heiress Paris Hiltonand psychologist Sigmund Freud.
Jonathan’s next major exhibition at Lazarides was December 2012’sYou’re Only Young Twice. It featured members of the public undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures, mostly facelifts and female breast adjustments. He said in The Guardian: “Three hundred years ago, the portrait painter’s job was to take people who looked a bit strange and fit them into a mould. That’s why all Gainsborough’s portraits look pretty similar. Nowadays you don’t have to do that: if anyone wants to look like [enhanced UK mainstream glamour model] Jordan, they can.” He has also pointed out in the accompanying book of the exhibition that, as a craftsman who effectively works with faces, both the anatomy of the patients beneath their skins, and the surgeon’s work, were fascinating to him. Moreover, the patients were likely to be in a similar demographic to his regular sitters. The artist has stressed that he makes no moral judgement regarding the phenomenon of plastic surgery, but he told The New Scientist “It’s slightly odd that we can change our bodies to look like whatever celebrity is popular at the moment,” adding “I prefer old faces, where you can see the narratives of their lives written into the lines of their face.”
Many of the works featured a background grid, used by some painters in the fundamental stages of a piece, lending a “work in progress” feel. You’re Only Young twice was widely lauded and once again saw Jonathan breaking free from the stereotype of a society portrait painter.
Jonathan has painted Prince Philip, husband to the Queen of Great Britain, and it is widely rumoured that the Queen has commissioned the artist to paint much-loved naturalist broadcaster Sir David Attenborough for the Royal Collection. A portrait of the actress Sienna Miller in the bloom of pregnancy was unveiled in late 2012 and a work depicting Old Vic theatre director and actor Kevin Spacey made newspaper headlines in May 2013.
Jonathan Yeo still works in London but has recently moved studios to that once occupied by sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. He is the curator of international member’s club group Soho House’s extensive art collection. His portraits of Rupert Murdoch and broadcaster Michael Parkinson(around which the TV channel Sky Arts made a December 2012 documentary) hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery.
A major retrospective of Jonathan’s work is planned for the National Portrait Gallery in September 2013. This is a huge achievement for a young, living artist – following him will be Rembrandt.