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 has lived in Bradford-on-Avon since 1996. After working as a teacher and illustrator, Emsley was awarded first prize in the prestigious BP Portrait Award in 2007, which has enabled him to pursue a full-time career as a self-taught artist. 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 Kate Middleton. When unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery, his picture became one of the most talked-about of this century. Emsley has explained how “On 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 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 (2003), and have been shown in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition.
Paul Emsley is represented by the Redfern Gallery.