It was, the portrait painter Jonathan Yeo told The Daily Beast, both exhilarating to be at the Smithsonian Museum on Monday, and “a little strange.”
Over coffee at New York’s Soho House, Yeo said that only a few years before he was told his portrait painting would never amount to much, and so being at the Smithsonian and being asked questions about his art by the assembled press, was thrilling—although he is no stranger to controversy and media attention.
It was strange because the blurring of fiction and reality around the 45-year-old artist felt dizzying. Here Yeo was, alongside Kevin Spacey—who plays scheming President Frank Underwood in House of Cards and who has posed for Yeo before as another character (Richard III)—unveiling a painting of Underwood which will hang nearby, though not yet alongside, real presidents’ portraits at the esteemed museum.
The portrait itself features Underwood looking both down from above and directly at the viewer, just as the Machiavellian character breaks the fourth wall to addresses us on the Netflix show, the fourth season of which begins March 4.
Spacey’s role was originated—even more archly—by actor Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the original 1990 British version of the show, created by then-Conservative politician (now Peer) Michael Dobbs.
In an intense two-hour conversation, the handsome, witty, and loquacious Yeo—married to actress Shebah Ronay, with two daughters, Tabitha, 12, and Yasmin, 9—talked about his sitters, who have included Camilla Parker Bowles, Nicole Kidman, David Cameron, Damien Hirst, and Malala Yousafzai.
He also discussed the art of the portrait in the age of the selfie, getting the famous to reveal themselves, growing up the child of a politician himself, and living with ADHD.
Underwood is a new one for you: a portrait of a fictional character, rather than a real person. You visited Kevin on the set to get it right.
The purpose of a portrait is getting at someone’s real identity. People start off by trying to put their best face on and act a certain way, whether they are actors or not. You have to see them not once but several times to erode that.
The public want paintings to tell a story. It’s not like 10 years ago, where you’d unveil a portrait and the only question was, “Does it look like him or not?”
For this picture, Kevin is certain he is just giving a performance. Kevin thinks this image is 99 percent Frank. I say it’s 80 percent Frank and 20 percent Kevin, and [laughs] frankly I’ve spent enough time with Kevin when he’s not in character to know the difference.
How did it come about?
He was sitting for me as Richard III, and said he was filming this show. It reminded me of the British show, and I said, “You’re not going to turn to the camera and do that camp thing of talking to the audience?”
Kevin said, “Yeah, totally.”
“That’s never going to work,” I said.
“I can see the risk,” Kevin said, “but I think it’s in the way you break the fourth wall and create the relationship with the audience to this unlikeable character, and a sense of complicity with him.”
I was still convinced it wouldn’t work. I obviously got that wrong, which is why I’m in the art business, not the TV business [laughs].
How have you captured Underwood?
It’s more voyeuristic, less confrontational, if the subject is looking at you, playfully controlling you, saying, “Who do you think you’re looking at?” I painted [British artist] Damien Hirst in a similar pose.
Unveiling it must have seemed a pretty surreal blend of fiction and reality meeting and blurring.
Yes, a real person in a fictitious program playing someone who does a real job being unveiled by a fictional president in a real gallery in a real city where actual political events happen and where many politicians turned up on the night because they are obsessed with the fictional program which makes fun of their real-life jobs, and who were more excited to be at this event than other political events that week.
Did you know it would be such a big deal?
We thought about doing it when the [presidential] election was happening, that this might be a time when people pay attention to it.
When I realized they were going to hang it in the same gallery as the real presidents I said to Kevin, “Isn’t there a danger this will look a piss-take, or doing something that won’t connect with people?” He said, “No, trust the audience more than that.” He was absolutely right.
Who have your most memorable sitters been?
The first one I did in America was Dennis Hopper. I met him in London 12 years ago. He was a big art fan. I eventually spent a week with him.
Was there a lot of hell-raising that week?
He’s certainly a wonderfully unpredictable person. I don’t think he was anything like the hell-raiser of days of yore. He still used to smoke a joint in the morning, and wander round the house with sunglasses on. But I think that was pretty tame compared to how he used to be. He was a lovely man and left-field thinker.
Are you always drawing people as you spend time with them?
At that stage early on I felt drawing was important and crucial to the end portrait. These days a week with someone is an indulgence. The best portraits tend to be done in the studio.
Have your final portraits ever offended any of your sitters?
I don’t think I’ve ever offended them. If you get it right, they may not be comfortable with it straight away, but they always come round to it eventually.
If you don’t really connect with them that can cause problems, but I have the good sense to realize that, and will say, “I have a big show to work on” or something. I don’t say, “I don’t find you interesting.” I’m far too English for that. Other times, you can see they are interesting, but it may not be the right moment.
What if you’re not comfortable with a sitter?
There are certain people like Rupert Murdoch (full disclosure: this reporter once worked for the Murdoch-owned London Times) who, like a lot of us, I imagined as a Bond villain, that you’d go into his office which would have a bank of video screens on the wall—which he does have—and a map of the world. I was looking on the floor for where the door to the piranha tank was.
And how was he?
The surprise when he came in was not that he was a lovely, cuddly guy, but that he has a low-key presence, and was very thoughtful, economical, and precise in what he says. He was a much more wide-ranging, complex character than you would expect.
Some things I politically disagree with him about, but other things surprised me, such as his knowledge of painting. He’s a connoisseur of Australian artists.
Sometimes not liking a person is not a problem. You wind up reacting to someone so much that it comes out as a passion in the picture.
I don’t just do portraits for the sake of doing portraits, or old-fashioned society portraiture. I want to make my work interesting a wider audience.
And now of course, with smartphones and selfies, people are making portrait painting on a daily basis and showing them to each other.
What does that mean for you and your art?
A couple of years ago my kids tried to teach me how to use Instagram: “If you want to look good hold it there,” “Show off by putting such-and-such in the picture.”
9- and 10-year-olds are making, reading, and deconstructing portrait images in ways that art history students may not have thought about, which means there is a whole generation coming of really sophisticated photographers and consumers of images. It’s an extraordinary leap to have made in such a short space of time.
Great, but doesn’t it take away the point of what you do. If everyone is a potential portrait artist, what is the point of your art?
Certainly it makes life harder for portrait photographers. I didn’t mean to go into portrait painting, but had to make a living and didn’t have another source of income. I’m good at faces, and doing them honed my skills as a draughtsman.
Because portrait painting was seen as old-fashioned, I was looking for different ways into it, whether that be by using porn or looking at plastic surgery, both of which have featured in my work.
In the 20th century, portrait photographers had lauded it over painters because they had this machine, the camera, which “never lied.”
Nowadays that has reversed: People expect a level of control over photos taken of themselves, which makes portrait painting a more risky, exciting prospect.
When I started, people like Dennis Hopper and Nicole Kidman were brave to say yes to me, to give me that control. Artists like Alex Katz and Lucian Freud are brilliant, and had a reputation of representing people, but not flattering them.
Yes, portraits are traditionally leapt on if it’s considered they’re not accurate.
People certainly expect more from narrative images. Painting was the only form of visual entertainment up until photography arrived in the early 19th century. So in painting, then came impressionism, abstraction: what could it do that was different?
In the last few years the authenticity of photography was called into question when the manipulation of photographic images was questioned with things like Photoshop.
On top of that, photography now is disposable: You take a picture, swipe to the next one, or delete. But paintings demand you stop and look at them.
With figurative subjects, you know a period of time has elapsed over a number of sittings. A relationship between the artist and subject has developed, which you are asked to contemplate.
When you do these portraits, you have to think ahead to them still being relevant in 20 years. My interest isn’t in surface characteristics, but revealing the sitters’ personalities.
Do you make your pictures with the controversy they may generate in your mind, like your 2007 picture of George W. Bush made up of images culled from porn magazines?
At that time I felt I was being pigeonholed as a certain kind of generic portrait artist.
I was commissioned to do his portrait and that was withdrawn, and they weren’t that charming about it. So, yes, I was annoyed about that.
If a portrait could be seen as an insult you should wait for a subject worth insulting, and he had said muddle-headed right-wing statements about things like girls getting pregnant.
Dennis Hopper said to me: “I’m not sure it’s a very good idea. I don’t know if you should put it out there.” His wife later told me it was because he was a Republican. The reason he was a Republican was that everyone else in Hollywood was a Democrat [laughs], and he wanted to be different.
It caused a stir.
My website got five and a half million hits in a few days. There was a performance aspect of composing the piece, the challenge of getting the images and using them properly. It took such a long time.
What was very clear was that Bush had a confused morality when it came to sex. To do this picture in porn images was such a schoolboy thing, a schoolboy joke disguised as a beautifully constructed picture.
The picture also references the prevalence of porn online and in advertising. I was walking down the street with my two young daughters and kept noticing it. When we were young there was mild titillation. It’s so extreme now.
You grew up in a political family too.
Yes, my father (Tim Yeo) was a Tory MP. He got in trouble. He had indiscretions [in 1993 it was revealed he had had a love-child with Conservative councilor Julia Stent; this in the era of the “Back to Basics” campaign of then-Tory PM, John Major].
Dad was never a moralizer. They [the media] really struggled to find anything on him. They found one thing he said about “the consequences of marital breakdown.”
I think my mum would much rather he have been a Labour politician than Tory. He was interested in politics rather than party politics.
He could argue both sides of any issue, which made it quite hard work as a kid. It made you quite good at arguing everything for sport, and in the art world you have to argue off the cuff.
You had lymphatic cancer when you were young. How did that affect your life, and your work?
I was 22. It was quite useful timing in retrospect. At that time I hadn’t been to art school, and I didn’t have parental support (as in, financial support). They were like, “Yeah, it’s fine to do this, you’ve just got to pay for it.”
I was just getting the hang of it: It wasn’t old-fashioned portraiture or contemporary art—it was in huge space in between, a massive area for exploration. My illness made me more gung-ho.
They gave me an 80 percent chance to pull through. But when you’re 20 you assume you’ll live forever. To suddenly realize you might not makes you think, “Fuck it, if I’m going to do something I’d better get on with it.” You don’t take anything for granted.
It also meant people trusted me much more. People started confessing things to me straight away. People in the public eye felt because I’d been through that, and because my dad was in the papers, they—who also felt under scrutiny—could trust me straight away.
That trust could have taken years to build up otherwise. You need people to know you are the custodian of their secrets, but you also try and put a few things out there on canvas which hopefully people will pick up on.
In terms of the presidential campaign you must want to do Trump’s portrait?
Without a shadow of a doubt. He is the target figure of the whole campaign. Whatever else you say about him, he’s ridiculous and his views are terrifying, but he’s not stupid.
What would your Trump portrait major on?
There’s that ridiculous hair, which is getting yellower by the day. Maybe I could give him a Simpsons-like glow, and a tinge greener. It’s gone from golden yellow to urine yellow. Imagine it ending up as a lime shade of green by the end. He’d possibly be vain enough to have his portrait done.
Hillary is much too risk-averse to take those chances. But she’s fascinating, and hopefully she will get the Democratic nomination and win the election.
For a portrait artist, she’s still a slight enigma. I want to know the thing in her personality that will affect how decisive moments are played out under her.
Were you charmed by Tony Blair?
At first. Blair was a very good actor: I remember a story of him preparing to make a speech by watching Harrison Ford in a film (Air Force One) playing the president. I followed him on the campaign trail, and did these sketches of him which I wasn’t happy with. Jay Jopling (gallerist and artistic godfather of the Young British Artists) told me I had fused conceptual and figurative art and to carry on with it.
I had another crack at Blair when he was leaving office, when he looked older and when the public had lost faith with him over Iraq.
I suppose you have to not be charmed, in order to tell the truth through that person’s portrait.
Sometimes the painting of a face has someone’s biography in it. When I painted Prince Philip, I didn’t want it to be one of those old-fashioned paintings that made fun of him, the tabloid joke Prince Philip, to make him look buffoon-ish.
He certainly does misjudge situations, but he’s really not stupid. He is funny and gets bored easily.
I chat to people in that hairdresser-y way so I can get on with my job. But, like Murdoch, Prince Philip wants to know your view on things, and then pick a fight. He asked what I thought about Afghanistan, and when I said, “I don’t know, what do you think?” he said, “No, what do you think?”
He’s also interested in painting. He’s into post-Impressionist painters like Bonnard, not chocolate-box Impressionism. I asked what he thought of the painting Lucian Freud had done of the Queen. “I just think he makes everyone look like they’re made of cheese,” Prince Philip said.
It sounded ridiculous, but one of the things Lucian did show was the green-blue colors in skin, and he had a way of painting people in a flat, slabby way.
How did you paint Prince Philip?
He has got such an interesting face, with a lifetime of experience in it, and you can see a mischievous intelligence in it. [laughs] He was appalled by how small it was. When he saw it for the first time, he asked, “Is that it?”
Would you like to paint the Queen?
I did one of the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla Parker Bowles) recently, who is great, amazing, down-to-earth, and so normal given the amount of shit she has had to take over the years. I’m interested in people at certain points of their lives. I would like to have painted Diana towards the end of hers. Prince Charles interests me at the moment.
What about Kate and William?
I’m interested in the next generation of Royals. I happened to be sitting next to Kate, and we got talking portraiture and child portraiture. She started asking about kids’ portraits and when the best time to do them was. I said it was best to leave it a little while until they were teenagers. I didn’t connect what she was really asking. I was distracted by sitting next to her. My wife was kicking me and making faces. Only later did I realize I might have been talking myself out of quite an interesting commission.
Plastic surgery has also featured in your work.
It’s endlessly fascinating. I was in Beverly Hills, and you see this blond chick, and a minute later you pass her again, and a minute after that you pass her again. But it’s different women, who you realize all have this generic look as if the same few plastic surgeons are offering the same look.
In Europe we’re still pretty coy about doing it and to be seen doing it. [Laughs] I’m not ruling it out myself, if there’s no risk, or expense, or outward sign I had it done. But it carries all these risks: most of us think, “Make do with a haircut.” It changes how we make expressions, and then people become addicted to it. They end up looking their age, just with work done.
In the Far East it’s taboo. I was at a dinner in China with an art dealer, and one guy was sitting at the table totally ostracized. I was told he was a plastic surgeon: All the women knew him, but didn’t want to admit it.
Are you vain yourself?
Totally, but not about my appearance. I have spent years struggling to be an artist. Now people are tuning into my work, and that’s good. Maybe it’s egotism rather than vanity. It’s slightly surreal to find myself sitting next to a Hollywood star at the Smithsonian. Only 10 years ago, people were saying my work would never be in a museum, and that I should do it as a sideline.
You seem to have a thousand thoughts a minute.
[Laughs] Coffee. [Pauses] I got diagnosed with ADD [ADHD] recently. When I first went to see the doctor, the doctor said that everyone thought they had it. People read something in the press, or one of their friends says the medication is great because it helps you get a lot of work done. I did a psychometric test, and was off the scale. I found that the medication, used in the right way, takes my tendency to be sidetracked and distracted and helps make my day more focused. I think most of my creative friends have a version of it, and I don’t think it’s unhelpful.
Looking back, do you think you had it as a kid?
I think I’ve had it all through my life. I had it badly at school (Westminster). I couldn’t concentrate at all there. The only time I could was when I was doodling. All my old reports from teachers said I’d be fine if I concentrated more. I was asked to address an old boys’ dinner, which I couldn’t believe given the number of times I was almost kicked out of school for disturbing lessons.
Would life have been different if you’d been diagnosed earlier?
If I’d been diagnosed and if I’d been medicated I would have done better at exams, and I would have done what was expected of Westminster pupils: to go to a great university, get a serious degree, and a proper job. But I’m doing this job because I did fuck up my exams, I didn’t revise, and—like a lot of creative people—I bended what little talent I have into making a living out of something I enjoy. I’ve been asked how can I be self-taught and not have gone to art school. But why is that more useful than spending half of my waking hours of the last 25 years doing the thing I love. I like drawing faces, I think I’m better at it than anyone else. Anything you do for that length of time, you get the hang of, then refine, and discover other things you don’t know.
Are you kids creative?
They’re both creative-minded, but I’m keen not push them too hard. Everyone says to them, “Do you want to be like your dad?” I remember when I was 12 when my dad went into politics people asking if I’d follow his example. I was like, “No, fuck off, I’m never going to do that.”
There was nothing more embarrassing than going into the London art world, and not just have a dad who’s a politician, but who’s also a Tory, and you’re a portrait painter.
Can you imagine three more uncool things to be? I’d have had the shit kicked out of me at art school. I knew my ideas had to be as rigorous as any conceptual artist’s, and also well-painted. I knew people would be looking for an excuse to say the work wasn’t good, or that I was using personal connections. It’s why I worked so hard.
So, what, and who next?
Alec Baldwin, I like. I like complex, creative people. Having prestige shows like the one I had at the [London] National Portrait Gallery gave me freedom to do new work, and allowed me to be pushy with approaching people to think up projects with me.
There’s also going to be a big show of my work in Denmark, for which I’ve done a series of paintings of Cara Delevingne. She came to my studio and said she liked my paintings. Through those paintings, I wanted to tell the story of how technology has changed the way we communicate images and see ourselves and our identities—partly because she shares the connection with the generation synonymous with Instagram and selfies. She does those images herself.