I first recall encountering Jonathan Yeo’s work via his triptych Proportional Representation, which depicted the three party leaders on the 2001 general election campaign, with the canvas size reflecting their share of the vote. Long after the election, and with none of the three still in charge of their parties, that series remains memorable and a prime example of how portraiture can add to the story.
Thus I had high expectations of the National Portrait Gallery’s showcase of his work – and it didn’t disappoint. Spread over two rooms, this is by no means comprehensive – still in his early 40s, Yeo has an astonishingly large portfolio, including highlights like a collage of George W Bush made from pornographic magazines – and neither is it a retrospective since several, including a portrait of Doreen Lawrence, are on display for the first time.
What it is, is a perfect introduction to an artist who surely counts among the top of those currently working in the UK. Sitters range from a theatrical, contemplative Kevin Spacey in role as Richard III, fading into a moody Shakespearean background, to friends and family and other artists, namely Grayson Perry and Damian Hirst. The Hirst portrait, the first that he ever sat for, dominates the first room. Likewise Hirst, seen straight on wearing a chemical dry suit and holding a mask, painted in a rush of blacks and greens, dominates the six-foot-high canvas.
Indeed, all of Yeo’s subjects inhabit their canvases: these are portraits where the face alone tells the story, not any trimmings. Helena Bonham Carter, with a sardonic expression and her wild tendrils leaping out at the viewer, is one of the few in this collection to be introduced against a backdrop, the subtle hint of the bustle of a London street revealing that the actress sat for Yeo outside her home.
Yeo, the son of a former cabinet minister, is certainly well-connected, The display features an array of famous faces, from Oscar winners to a top model and a charming portrait of Michael Parkinson, his weathered but wise demeanour captured in Yeo’s haphazard brush strokes. They are broadly flattering: Yeo, unlike portraitists in the Freud tradition, appears to have little desire to emphasise his subjects’ flaws or play on their insecurities. Instead, his work harks back to a time when the great and good would sit to ensure their legacy in strokes of oil paint.
One of the most arresting is Yeo’s very recent portrait, Girl Reading, of young activist Malala Yousafzai. Partially unfinished, with light pencil marks still visible even as the face itself is vivid and detailed, Yeo conveys the suggestion of a girl mature before her time, one with much promise ahead.
There is an enjoyable glimpse of some of his sketches from the 2001 campaign trail – a half-finished pencil study of William Hague that is astonishingly accurate; a testament to the artist’s skill. Tellingly, Hague appears diminutive, swallowed by the page, while Tony Blair appears in greater detail. And there are a series of less formal studies, from a serious looking Jude Law to an eerie Sienna Miller, painted in ghostly bluish tones that mark a contrast to her typical glossy public image.
The range of work, and especially the montage of smaller works in the second room, enables the visitor to see Yeo’s progression as an artist and in particular highlights the contrast between his naturalist works and those that are more textured and abstract, all flashes of light and broad patches of colour. Still in his prime, there will undoubtedly be many other chances to enjoy Yeo’s work. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing exhibition that is worth a visit.