Paul Emsley

b. 1947

With a meticulous approach and an adept use of chiaroscuro, Paul Emsley has created outstanding conté studies of animals and flowers, and painted the official portraits of illustrious sitters including Nelson Mandela and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.

 

Born in Glasgow in 1947, but raised in South Africa, Emsley inititally trained and worked as a graphic designer, teacher, and illustrator, before devoting himself entirely to painting and drawing in 1996. Emsley was awarded first prize in the prestigious BP Portrait Award in 2007 - his winning entry was of his neighbour and fellow painter, Michael Simpson. Unflinching in its painstaking detail, the wrinkled head of the elderly sitter is bathed in an ethereal light. This is significant, as Simpson was originally raised as Jewish, but has since turned to atheism, and much of his artwork has been informed by the writings of Giordano Bruno, a medieval philosopher burned at the stake during the Inquisition. In painting the background black, the head appears to float up and away from his body; again, the notion of gravity has fascinated Simpson since childhood, and these concerns are explored in recent work.

 

Indeed, the technique of blacking out the background is a compositional device that Emsley frequently employs, and is repeated in most of his portraits. Emsley has said that the crux of his work is “the way in which light and shadow falls across forms”. By manipulating the lighting, the head looms from the darkness with alarming clarity. Thus, although apparently photo-realist, the portraits are not rooted in complete reality. The resulting composition tends to disorientate the viewer, much like Chuck Close’s portraits, which subtly blur in and out of focus. Similarly, Emsley’s portraits of Nelson Mandela – one of which is owned by the Mandela Foundation – appear to be exact reproductions of photographs, but the artist has in fact made minor “aesthetic judgments”, moving an eye and an ear from their original places. This is reminiscent of another American Hyperrealist, Richard Estes, whose landscapes often have one or two details deliberately but minutely altered. (Estes too doctors the lighting.)

  

In 2013, following a successful portrait of the author Sir VS Naipaul, Emsley was commissioned to paint HRH The Duchess of Cambridge. When unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery, his picture became one of the most talked-about of this century. Emsley has explained how “[o]n the one hand, I have offended the critics who had expected something rougher and more challenging, and on the other that part of the public who would like something more in keeping with the glamorous images they are used to”. Regarding the former, it was never Emsley’s intention, and nor was it appropriate, for it to be an uncompromising, warts-and-all project, like Lucian Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth, for example. In fact, the portrait is really rather intriguing; it packs an aesthetic as well as intellectual punch, whereby the soft, sfumato surface hints at the sense of mystery enveloping this spotlight-shunning sitter. Therefore, not only is it a remarkable likeness of Kate, but the portrait says as much about the royal family as it does about our own abiding interest in them.

 

Given his technical ability, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Emsley has painted relatively few portraits. This is partly due to the time it takes to complete a portrait – between two and four months – and also to his interest in exploring other subjects and media. He is drawn chiefly to animals, for their “strange beauty” and for their “forms, textures and surfaces”. In his studies, often completed in conté crayon on paper, one marvels at the rough creases of a warthog’s skin; the battle-weary scars and protruding rib-cage of an emaciated lioness, soon to die; the shimmering coat of fur on a pampered pet dog. With remarkable realism, and dramatic play of light and dark, these animals become profound, poignant things of wonder. Herein, Emsley succeeds in his wish to “transform the ordinary into the extraordinary”. We look at these seemingly familiar animals with altogether new eyes, much like those who saw Durer’s rhinoceros for the first time, some 500 years ago. Emsley’s animal studies have won various awards, including First Prize in The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition (2002), and have been shown in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition.

 

Paul Emsley is represented by the Redfern Gallery.

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  • <span class=%22title%22>Black Rhinoceros<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2018</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Black Rhinoceros, 2018
    Black chalk on paper
    66 x 125 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2017</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, 2017
    Chalk on paper
    30 x 21 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Faces of London (No. 1)<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2017</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Faces of London (No. 1), 2017
    Chalk on paper
    34 x 37 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Faces of London (No. 13)<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2017</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Faces of London (No. 13), 2017
    Chalk on paper
    37 x 33 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Faces of London (No. 18)<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2017</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Faces of London (No. 18), 2017
    Chalk on paper
    38 x 33 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Faces of London (No. 3)<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2017</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Faces of London (No. 3), 2017
    Chalk on paper
    38 x 31 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Geoffrey Palmer<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2017</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Geoffrey Palmer, 2017
    Chalk on paper
    79 x 71 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Spring Island<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2017</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Spring Island, 2017
    Acrylic on canvas
    91 x 122 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Glacier<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2016</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Glacier, 2016
    Chalk on paper
    39 x 50 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Terracotta<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2016</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Terracotta, 2016
    Acrylic on conservation board
    19 x 23 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>The China Garden<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2016</span>
    Paul Emsley
    The China Garden, 2016
    Chalk on paper
    39 x 39 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>William Boyd<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2016</span>
    Paul Emsley
    William Boyd, 2016
    Acrylic on conservation board
    21 x 22 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Faces of London (No. 7)<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2015</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Faces of London (No. 7), 2015
    Chalk on paper
    34 x 34 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Nelson Mandela<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2015</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Nelson Mandela, 2015
    Acrylic on paper
    91 x 86 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Reminiscence<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2015</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Reminiscence, 2015
    Coloured chalk on paper
    41 x 35 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Romanticism<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2015</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Romanticism, 2015
    Chalk on paper
    40 x 52 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>The Far Side<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2015</span>
    Paul Emsley
    The Far Side, 2015
    Chalk on paper
    48 x 49 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Nelson Mandela<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2010</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Nelson Mandela, 2010
    Chalk and pencil on paper
    117 x 89 cm
  • <span class=%22title%22>Michael Simpson<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2007</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Michael Simpson, 2007
    Oil on canvas
    138 x 112 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Bison<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2005</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Bison, 2005
    Chalk on paper
    92 x 119 cm
  • <span class=%22title%22>Elephant<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2005</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Elephant, 2005
    Chalk on paper
    97 x 137 cm
  • <span class=%22title%22>Lion<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2005</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Lion, 2005
    Chalk on paper
    76 x 149 cm
  • <span class=%22title%22>Cockerel<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2003</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Cockerel, 2003
    Oil on canvas
    121 x 140 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Dog<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2003</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Dog, 2003
    Watercolour on paper
    21 x 25 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Horse<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2003</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Horse, 2003
    Watercolour on paper
    84 x 106 cm
    Signed and dated verso
  • <span class=%22title%22>Shark<span class=%22title_comma%22>, </span></span><span class=%22year%22>2003</span>
    Paul Emsley
    Shark, 2003
    Chalk on paper
    80 x 156 cm
    Signed and dated verso

Paul Emsley

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