Poetry is once again cool. Portraiture is hot. Or is it the other way round? Claire Eastgate has hit a rich seam of subjects for a collection of portraits that celebrate the lives and work of some of this country’s finest female poets, entitled Painting the Poets.
The idea came from her love of poetry and that she wanted to celebrate the enormous contribution from the former National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, and Dame Carol Ann Duffy, who handed over to Simon Armitage as Poet Laureate in May of this year after a decade in the role, in a double portrait. Claire managed to paint them both at a poetry workshop in Wales, sitting on a modest two-seater sofa; Duffy staring unflinchingly at the painter, Clarke reading her note-book. The painting was short-listed for the BP National Portrait Award in 2017, and it went on tour around the UK.
In 2019 the Scottish National Portrait Gallery bought one of her preliminary oil portraits of Duffy, which helped put her on the radar. The Poet Laureate is appointed by the Queen, on advice from her Prime Minister, and Duffy was the first woman to be awarded the title in 388 years, and, in addition to the salary of £5,750, she received a butt of ‘canary wine,’ or sherry, equivalent to 720 bottles. She had her own labels printed, which included her poem: ‘ . . . and not gladly be kissed by gentle William Shakespeare’s lips, the dark, raisiny taste of his song; bequeathed to his thousand daughters and sons, the stolen wines of the Spanish sun.’
Poet in the City presented Women in Frame at King’s Place in London at the beginning of November, showcasing the Painting the Poets project, with poetry readings by Gillian Clarke, Hannah Sullivan, Deanna Rodger and Lisa Luxx. Also taking part in a panel discussion with the poets was Georgia Haseldine of the National Portrait Gallery, which explored women in poetry, portraiture and creativity. On the walls and floor of Eastgate’s light and airy studio in the shadow of St Nicholas Church in Chiswick, in whose graveyard William Hogarth is buried, are numerous portraits in various stages, ranging from charcoal drawings, to oil sketches, to work-in-progress, and some finished portraits. She plans to paint around 30 portraits, and from 2020, will be be exhibitied around the country incrementally at selected galleries, with readings by some of the sitters, as well as short films of the sitter and painter in conversation during the sessions. An anthology of the poet’s work is also planned to sit alongside the exhibitions.
Eastgate says that, inevitably, during the first sitting, there can be an awkwardness, as many people are not used to being scrutinised with such intensity, but as the sessions develop, the sitter often opens up and reveals some quite intimate truths about herself. Meanwhile, the painter is trying to get the subject down on canvas, and capture, not just a likeness, but an insight into her character. Claire is very ‘painterly’ in her approach to the process of mixing colours and colour temperature, but also how the paint is put down, and in what order. She has been holding small workshops in portraiture, which are fun, but also tiring for both the student and tutor, and she finds them rewarding when, after a two day course, the student is able to produce a competent work. But she is always itching to get back to her own stuff.
She does not employ traditional measuring techniques and works with a simple three-step observation method: sitter – palette – canvas. Eastgate has a powerful, individual style, or rather, styles, as she seamlessly slips between loose, energetic paintings and more formal, representational portraits, but they all possess a confidence in applying paint that is central to her skills. She will clearly go a long way, as her skill-set includes landscapes, life drawing and dogs. So, there we have it. Poetry is hot. Portraiture is cool.
Image: Claire with her painting of Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy