Daphne Todd at The Mall Galleries
Entering the Mall Galleries, one could not help but notice two glamorous older ladies loitering around the portraits of which they were the subjects. Both were wearing a great deal more than their likenesses had been. One, JJ Hill, told me that Todd had asked her to pose for her 40th birthday portrait which took a meaty fifty hours to complete, and that Todd had painted straight onto the board without sketching or taking pictures.
Todd’s paint lies virtually flat on the board, which she favours over canvas. The colours are jewel-like but faded and paler than their photographs suggest. This carefully-controlled palette creates a special harmonic atmosphere; the subject very much shares the pictorial space with his or her surroundings.
Todd’s laborious approach had led to Prince Charles turning down the opportunity to have his portrait done. Instead, he made her an official guest on the typically hectic royal tour of South Africa, where the royal couple’s movements were minutely planned. In an entertaining yet apologetic introduction to her catalogue, Todd writes, “There was never more than a few hours to be scraped together at any one venue, while TRH continued to spread their light on much worthier concerns such as sustainable fisheries and sanitary schemes.” The resulting pictures formed the basis of the exhibition, which experienced fervent sales on the opening night.
Many of these tour pictures are noticeably unfinished, sitting flat and somewhat lifelessly on the board. The one exception, Mid-day, Soweto, is vivid with detail and more like a sketch in paint, perhaps suggesting the approach Todd would take if she repeated the experiment.
Certainly, her drive to “paint things as they are” comes closer to being achieved when she spends hours in situ. The tour pictures can be contrasted with her satisfying and thoughtful 1970s pictures of Spain. These large, sun-bleached pictures very much dominate the room: altarpieces imagined by Cezanne. Historic monuments and beautiful mountains are painted along with neighbouring industrial ephemera (pylons, industrial tubes). In pictures of an abandoned dock and a cement factory, the industrial is painted with the love and attention of Cyprus-dotted hills and castles. Man is at peace with nature: commercialisation with the picturesque, at least in this artist’s gaze.
Noticeable by their absence are portraits of the many celebrities Todd has painted over the years, such as Julian Fellowes and Dame Janet Baker. Also lacking is the controversial painting of her 100-year-old mother’s corpse that won her the 2010 BP Portrait award. Nevertheless, these particular works suggest that a retrospective, when it comes, will make for a rewarding gallery trip. Until then, there is plenty to enjoy in the work of this thoughtful and expressive figurative artist.