Preview: Lorna May Wadsworth

Lorna May Wadsworth’s portraits are playful but never cruel. As a retrospective of her work is installed in her home city of Sheffield, the artist talks about her special connection with her sitters

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Portrait painters have to tread – or trace – a line between their often-famous sitters’ beauty, power and status, while also showing their vulnerability and humanity.

When the painter is a woman, a further dimension is added. In Gaze, an exhibition of over 100 portraits and drawings, Lorna May Wadsworth’s new show at the Graves Gallery in her home city of Sheffield reveals her as a painter of great empathy and sensitivity.

Wadsworth subverts the traditional power play of artist and sitter over and over. Her colossal six by six foot 2007 portrait of former prime minister Baroness Thatcher, now hanging in the Conservative Party’s head office, is a case in point. The last portrait of her to be made, it captures her monolithic presence in our culture but also the mental decline that would soon become apparent.

Wadsworth says she was “petrified” at the sittings, but in the finished piece it’s Thatcher who looks petrified – as well as uncharacteristically fragile – in more ways than one. Fierce, certainly, but also strangely disarmed.

“She loomed so large in my childhood in Sheffield and I wanted to capture something of the woman remembered as that gargantuan Spitting Image puppet,” says Wadsworth. “There’s a lot of pathos in it. When you get that close to someone you see the vulnerability. I felt strangely protective of her. It was an amazing encounter and I felt enormous gratitude to have been allowed so close.”

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But mostly her sitters are men. Starting in the 1990s with her Sheffield compatriot Jarvis Cocker, Wadsworth has painted politicians, actors, writers, musicians and socialites, combining Old Master tropes with a witty modern sensibility. Actor David Tennant is framed with a halo of gold like a medieval icon, but wearing aviator sunglasses.

They are not all famous: a winged boy is a putto in jeans; a beautiful boy becomes the Virgin Mary; a milliner sits barefoot but surrounded by extravagant hats. The artist uses a broad range of techniques and materials, putting together for example gold leaf and fluorescent neon paint.

She can be playful and mischievous but is never cruel. “I don’t like painters who show no empathy with their subject,” she says. “It requires huge trust and I don’t take it lightly. It’s intimate and a very special way to get to know someone.”

The mysterious process of bringing something into being has always fascinated her. “It’s a strange, ineffable process and things end up being there on the canvas that you didn’t know about,” she says. “You are transmuting the materials into something else. You are solidifying the subject, and it’s a massive privilege to begin the task of immortality.”

Materials and media suit the subject. For a portrait of the writer Neil Gaiman, she used 5,000 year-old bog oak in the shape of a book, and a technique using beeswax that makes him look elusive and as timeless as his stories.  “He was an absolute gift,” she says. “I used his creative universe, with its undercurrents of mythologies, to spark my imagination.

“Looking is a form of love,” she says. “I want my sitters to feel cherished and witnessed. Their portraits will change as they age and hopefully they will look back and see new aspects of themselves. It can be very moving. And for their children it gives far more of a sense of physical presence than a photograph. It’s a joy for their whole lives, and the painting will still be there when we are all long gone.”

Gaze, A Retrospective of Portraits by Lorna May Wadsworth is at the Graves Gallery, Sheffield, 9Nov-15 Feb 2020 (

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