Confession time: I love John Singer Sargent and have done since my late teens. If I could choose one artist to have been friends with it would be JSS. A postcard of his portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw gazed down on my student desk. He was friends with Henry James and Edith Wharton, my teenage literary crushes. Now the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition not of his formal commissioned portraits but those of his friends, if he is my friend then obviously these people will be too.
To begin with a shock, the man that I assumed was American was in fact born in Florence and mainly raised in Europe albeit to American parents. The first friends that we meet are Sargent’s first employers, patrons and their children. Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron were the children of the playwright Édouard Pailleron. The pair are dressed in black and white and the boy appears slightly blurred as if in motion whilst the girl stares out at us in almost photographic perfection.
As success came to Sargent so did the widening of his social circle. Look in one direction and a melancholy Auguste Rodin gazes at you, in another and Claude Monet, cleverly bracketed by two portraits that have backgrounds that echo the lily ponds at Giverny, stares back at you.
Our hero then moves to Britain spending time in London and the Cotswolds. He depicted his friends as they took picnics, ate dinner and celebrated family birthdays. It’s just like seeing the postings of a group of glamourous acquaintances on Facebook. Tucked away in a corner are two portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson he looks as if he is about to spring into movement and far more like the bohemian author of “Travels with a Donkey” than the staid man I imagine wrote “Treasure Island.
In my other life, where John Singer Sargent is one of my best friends we go on lovely sunlit picnics with him and my other talented friends. We sit on river banks, shaded by parasols, eating, painting, writing, reading or just chatting. Luckily for me my hero was equally taken with the vision and painted a picture that exactly matches my fantasy. Maybe I need to buy a postcard of “Group with Parasols” to look down on my current desk.
The National Portrait Gallery not only contains many fine portraits but also one of my all-time favourite cafes, the Portrait Restaurant and Bar. It perches at the very top of the building and has splendid views over the roof of the National Gallery, toward Nelson on his column and thence down Whitehall. Although not the cheapest place for a coffee and cake it does offer spectacular views. There is also a café in the bar and every Thursday and Friday it is possible to have a drink and relax in the late shift bar which I haven’t done but must arrange to do soon.
SARGENT: PORTRAITS OF ARTISTS AND FRIENDS 12 February-25 May 2015
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
St Martins Place, London WC2H 0HE
Open daily 10am-5pm (Thursday and Friday open until 8pm)
Adults – £14.50, Concession – £12, Children under 12 free