Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 March 2020

Malcolm Guite gazes at portraits of ‘ordinary people’

MY COLLEGE hosts “The People’s Portraits”: a remarkable collection of “portraits of ordinary people from all walks of life”, which was first mounted by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters as a millennium project, but has been on loan to Girton since 2002.

It gives the artists a chance to paint not just “the great and the good”, but anyone whose portrait they would like to paint, whose face they would like to celebrate: people who might otherwise never sit for a portrait in their lives.

New portraits are added every year, and so, as I walk Girton’s long corridors, I look up to see the cheery face of a scaffolder, leaning with a certain professional swagger on his narrow platform, and a rubicund and smiling baker holding up a delicious-looking loaf. In a portrait done in a blaze of rainbow colours and textured brush strokes, a primary-school teacher reads a book, while her young charges crowd in on her on every side to see the pictures.

The exhibition brochure calls these “portraits of ordinary people” — but, of course, as C. S. Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” These extraordinary portraits bear witness to that. Each time I pass them, I see something new; for, even though I see them nearly every day, I will never have given each of them the sustained attention that the artist gave the sitter as he or she made the painting. And so there is always an over-plus, a kind of brimming abundance to each picture, that draws you back.

Beside each portrait is a brief account of the sitter, and what drew the artist to paint him or her.

One portrait, in particular, and its accompanying story always draws me, and has informed and changed my own gaze upon the world.

The portrait, by Howard Morgan, is simply titled Arthur Gathercole, Vagrant. It shows an elderly man draped in an outsized army surplus coat, wearing an old military cap at a rakish angle and leaning towards the viewer, his hands clasped on his knee, with a strong, straight stare and an indecipherable expression; for part of his face and one of his eyes is shadowed by the peak of his cap.

But, in his whole stance and stare, there is a suggestion of great presence, endurance, and strength of personality. The accompanying story tells how he was a familiar sight on the streets of Battersea near the artist’s studio, how he agreed to sit, and how, during those sittings, the painter heard his tales of life in the army, glimpsed through his confused narrative some of the terrible suffering that he’d endured and witnessed, and heard him say that he was going to “fight on and never give up”.

And then he disappeared from all his usual haunts, till the artist got a phone call from a hospital: “They had been through his pockets and found my phone number. He was obviously in a bad way; so I rushed along to the hospital. He died about ten minutes later. It was as though he had been waiting for me.”

My daily gaze at Arthur has changed the way I look at “ordinary people”, and especially at those other “vagrants” from whom one might be tempted to avert one’s gaze, but on whom Christ gazes with an artist’s love and skill, and at whose end he, and perhaps he alone, will be present.

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