'Portraits and Process', Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator, National Portrait Gallery, 2014


I was introduced to Catherine Goodman’s work in 2002 when
 she was awarded first prize in the BP Portrait Award for her painting of Antony Sutch, Master of Downside College.

All the judges were struck by the artist’s obvious delight in paint and the sheer physical presence of the sitter with his sensitive and slightly crumpled face and glinting eyes. This was a painting that had clearly involved many sittings and had never been near a camera. The artist behind this deeply felt painting was an experienced painter of 39, who trained at Camberwell School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, where she won the prestigious RA Gold Medal. Alongside her life in the studio she was, and still is, the Founder and Artistic Director of The Prince’s Drawing School. Passionate about painting, Catherine counts among her mentors Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and the late Lucian Freud. She is still, quite remarkably in the 21st century, making Expressionist, figurative paintings in a predominantly male world. She believes in direct drawing and painting, piercing observation and constantly re-visiting the subject. Alongside her intimate portraits she paints energetic landscapes, often based on her annual journeys to India, imaginary work and rich interior scenes.

As part of her first prize for the BP Portrait Award she was awarded a commission to paint a portrait for the National Portrait Gallery of the founder of the modern hospice movement, Dame Cicely Saunders. Finding the right sitter for Catherine had not been easy: not every subject had the time or the inclination to sit under Catherine’s watchful and seemingly endless gaze. When she was first approached Dame Cicely dismissed the idea of sitting for a portrait. She had been painted by her late husband, Professor Marian Bohusz-Szysko, and felt it would be more straightforward if we accepted one of his portraits. She had terminal cancer and didn’t have the time to give. Sandy Nairne, Director, National Portrait Gallery, managed to coax Dame Cicely into meeting Catherine and she was won over. They immediately embarked on a remarkable journey together, with sittings at St Christopher’s Hospice, that has resulted in an insightful portrait of Dame Cicely at the end of her own life.

Twelve years after Catherine’s winning portrait and subsequent commission this will be the first time the National Portrait Gallery has focussed on her painted portraits and drawings, produced over the last three years. As I’ve watched these portraits evolve in the studio I’ve been struck by their shared intensity and how her subjects appear to be looking inwards. The cast of characters has gathered momentum in recent months since the idea of a display at the Gallery was proposed. And what began as a private encounter in the studio will inevitably become more public. It will be fascinating to see how these quiet portraits of the interior sit amongst some of the more of official, honorific portraits at the Gallery. Although some of the sitters are in the public realm, such as the film director, Stephen Frears, and the writer, Vikram Seth, these portraits were made behind the firmly closed doors of the studio. Catherine has also painted people from the world of media and publishing, whose work may be known, but their faces less so: Arthur Edwards, photographer on The Sun, Rachel Campbell- Johnston, art critic for The Times, Daisy Goodwin, broadcaster and novelist and Gillon Aitken, literary agent. There are some less familiar subjects too such as Diana Rawstron, the late Lucian Freud’s lawyer, Stephanie Fierz, Catherine’s former headmistress, and Harry Parker, a young soldier who sustained serious injuries in Hellmand. And presiding over them all is a powerful and energetic self-portrait, a subject Catherine periodically returns to between sitters when she wants to challenge herself and find out how she has changed since she last looked.

This interview took place at the National Portrait Gallery in May 2014 as preparations were being made for the artist’s display, ‘Portraits from Life’.

SH: When did you discover you wanted to be an artist?

CG: I had two childhood in influences. The first was Russian icons – my Mother’s Russian and I remember being lifted up to kiss icons in church. Every Sunday from being a baby until my teenage years we sat through long liturgies, which were important to me. The first human images I ever saw were these large heads with penetrating eyes. Icons are called ‘windows into the soul’ and I often think as I look at my portraits now that I can see that sense of encounter and an interior life. My other early influence was my Grandmother’s house in Oxfordshire, where we spent a lot of time (CG’s Great Grandmother was Ottoline Morrell). There was a red chalk Stanley Spencer self-portrait drawing in my bedroom there. There were a lot of Augustus John drawings and other portraits just around the house, so to be a painter was as normal as being a doctor, or lawyer or anything else. It was completely within my family’s terms of reference and then later, when I was at school, drawing was always the thing that I did best.

SH: I remember you telling me about how you used to go and sit in the headmistress’s office and paint. Who were your early influences?

CG: Yes that’s my headmistress, Stephanie Fierz, whose portrait is in the display. Mrs Fierz gave me free reign to be an artist. It’s interesting that in this catalogue both Emma Freud and Belinda Giles have written about Mrs Fierz and they highlight the way that she gave us all permission to be ourselves and encouraged us to be fairly anarchic, which was helpful in the life of a painter. And then Rembrandt and Titian became incredibly important to me and those portraits often felt more real than people, more alive and potent in some way. I started drawing from Rembrandt and Titian when I was around 14 or 15.

SH: Can you tell me something about your working day in the studio?

CG: I think, like a plant tethered in a particular way, you grow in strange directions. Certainly drawing and painting for me is the way in which I translate feelings and thoughts and so for me starting work is one of the most exciting things. I wake up early and try to get to the studio around 8.30. If I’m working late I just stay at the studio and get up early and begin work again the next morning. Normally I work with the same person once, or possibly twice, a week for two hours and that rhythm works for me. It varies between sitters of course. For instance Harry Parker came every Monday night at 6.30 and we worked and that just became what Harry and I did on a Monday evening. For me it’s not really about how many sittings we’ve done or when it’s finishing but that the sittings become part of normal life. I think if you can inculcate that in to the process, it becomes a work that you’re making together and there is no tension or impatience. Or there might be, but I’m not aware of it, because I think that space in the day in people’s lives can become an important and quite beautiful time to process stuff. Harry’s writing a book at the moment so he would sit and think about his book during sittings and you can see that in his face in the portrait.

SH: Do you prefer to work in silence?

CG: If people can work in silence that is what I like best but a lot of the time that’s too difficult for them so we either listen to music or a book. Harry was silent always and Stephanie Fierz was silent too. With Mary Keen we listened to Madame Bovary followed by Proust. So you can see how long it went on for. We didn’t listen to the whole of Proust but you do have a sense of the literature being woven into the painting and the sitter’s response to it. With Duncan (Robinson) we listened to Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion all the way through. Daisy (Goodwin) and I listened to Agatha Christie and I, Claudius. Diana (Rawstron) and I listened to Claire Tomalin’s Life of Dickens. Gillon (Aitken) and I always listened to The Archers omnibus and Desert Island Discs. I’m listening to The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt with Hannah (Rothschild). Pearl (Chanda) and I listened to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and she is so sensitive that somehow all the psychological depth of the relationships in the novel came out in the portrait. Ivor (Braka) was focused and chose The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.

SH: You recently had an exhibition at Colnaghi of your Veronese drawings. Can you talk about your affinity with Veronese?

CG: The Venetians have always been important to me. Recently I’ve realized there is a sense of the east in Venice, which I’m drawn to in the same way as India’s always been a big part of my life. I attribute that to my Russianness I think. In Venice there is something that isn’t pure Italian and in paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese there’s a sense of an eastern life that came to Venice. Whether it was in the pigments, the textiles or just the atmosphere of the place there is certainly that eastern quality. So Venetian paintings have always been my favourite – I think it’s partly to do with the pattern making, the energy and humanity. Veronese’s work is sometimes criticized for being lacking in emotion. Whereas Titian wears his heart on his sleeve and his soul is open for everyone to see, with Veronese I think that there’s as much feeling there but it’s restrained. Often the viewer will be presented with a row of backs and I think that from the back of somebody’s head you can still feel the love. The attention that he pays to that little boy leaning over, or the dogs, or the crazy camels that he obviously never saw is incredibly moving. But I think most of all there are the most beautiful visual puns that excite me in those paintings and I have learnt so much from them.

SH: Can you talk about some of the other artists who have influenced you?

CG: I’ve always worked from paintings. I remember my wonderful tutor at Camberwell, Sargy Mann, who has gone blind now, encouraged me to do a copy of a Bonnard, The Bowl of Milk, at Tate Britain. I remember I did a large ambitious painting in the Tate copying that picture and I had a sense that Bonnard was holding my hand and showing me how to paint. I felt the same thing with Veronese when I worked at the National Gallery on Saturday nights, after it had closed. I’ve been drawing those paintings for the last five years pretty well every Saturday night. I felt like I was having an illicit affair with Veronese and occasionally I felt a sense of possession and ownership. All those pencil drawings in the Colnaghi show were done at the National Gallery in my sketchbook during the day when I was teaching or going in late on a Wednesday or Friday night. I go back to the Venetian paintings or Rembrandt whenever I need a challenge and to find solace – it kind of both comforts and kicks you.

SH: Can you talk a little more about the contemporary artists who have influenced you?

CG: Frank Auerbach had already left Camberwell when I was there but I think he was such an inspiring teacher he left a legacy behind him. I remember seeing a Kossoff show in Hammersmith when I was on the Foundation course that had a huge influence on me. I’ve always thought that I was reared in The School of London. I also attribute it to Leon’s Russianness – somehow there is a sense of empathy and understanding. I do feel a bit of a foreigner in London – I don’t know why as I was born and raised here but I definitely feel a good half of me is something else and so I feel an affinity with Leon. And then knowing Lucian a bit in the last five years of his life, mainly as someone to laugh with. David Hockney has been a support and influence too, partly because of his love of and belief in the importance of drawing. I have a book of writings and interviews with Louise Bourgeois in my studio, which I often look at and read. It’s a bit bedraggled now from dropping it in the bath. Her work about her family and her personal life was so honestly made.

SH: Are there portraits in the National Portrait Gallery that you particularly admire?

CG: I’ve always liked that Salman Rushdie portrait of Bhupen Khakhar. And I like Lucian’s painting of Jacob Rothschild – the awkwardness of it. I’ve always loved early Tudor portraits, so quite often I will go up and look at those. There’s almost a trace of an icon still left in a Tudor portrait and that sense of direct encounter.

SH: How does the high profile role of being Director of The Prince’s Drawing School inform and complement your work and solitary life in the studio? Are you influenced by the work of your students and the teaching environment in the school?

CG: I’ve always taught since I was at Camberwell and the Royal Academy Schools. I used to teach drawing at a Saturday kids’ club in Peckham. As I get older I feel that there is something vital and liberating in the activity of making drawings. And if people are given the means to have that visual confidence that drawing brings they can use that language, that way of exploring the world, to take them into so many different areas. When I went back to teach at Camberwell after I’d done my MA at the Academy there was very little drawing happening and I was conscious of what an incredible gift it had been to my painting. And yes it had set me in a particular stable but nevertheless it was a stable I could climb out of. What I feel about drawing now is that it’s important to keep that spirit alive. I mean Humphrey (Ocean) talks about what we do at the Drawing School as being a finger in the dam. It’s also been good working with a ‘band of brothers’ at the Drawing School. I’ve worked with Humphrey, Christopher (Le Brun), Tim (Hyman), John (Lessore) and Liza Dimbleby has joined us now but we have all worked together at making the School work. So although I’m the Director I certainly couldn’t have got this far without their energy and expertise.

SH: I’ve noticed you’ve started using a vivid yellow as an under paint. Can you talk some more about your process and how you go about making a portrait?

CG: The yellow is cadmium yellow. I’ve been drawing on coloured paper a lot recently – many of the Veronese drawings are on coloured paper – even black paper sometimes. With the portraits I think having a really strong under colour gives you something to fight against – just like Sickert did with those greens. I’ve been pondering why it takes me so long to extract the personality and essence of the person because quite often I work quickly in the beginning and I find I get an instant likeness. I think this is partly because I draw all the time so my drawing is quite dexterous. Sometimes I let my sitters see the paintings after the first sitting so they have a sense of what the image will look like eventually. My whole working relationship is about the mutual trust that needs to exist. Once I’ve got the likeness I feel I have to do some mining. Sometimes you have to wait for someone to lose their temper or be in a bad mood or for some aspect of life to show itself. This can take a long time and often doesn’t happen on a conscious level. So it’s more the feeling of the person rather than an actual likeness that I’m looking for and weirdly having a strong colour to kick against can help bring about it – a bit like putting vodka and lemonade together it can give you the kick that you need.

SH: How do you think your subjects feel about sitting for you?

CG: Some people compare sitting for me with going to the shrink. Others compare it to a Quaker meeting or a period of meditation. The process of making a portrait is fundamental for me. The long periods of time spent in the studio together mean that trust develops between us and relationships deepen. Frequent sittings allow me lots of time to chip away at the barriers that we all create. For me, good portraits have psychological depth but it’s not something that comes without mining. It is sometimes a taming process – observing moods and learning to read them. Shyness at the start can be helpful because there is an honesty and then I’m relieved after a while when people arrive tired and grumpy because it means there’s no more pretence.

SH: Can you talk a little about your self-portraits, which are a constant in your working practice and also explain the significance of the stuffed boar in your recent self-portrait?

CG: I’ve made self-portraits ever since I was a child. They’re a way of seeing – an insight into where I am as an artist. ‘Who do I see that I am?’. They’re not constantly on the go. I destroy a lot – unlike the portraits of other people, which I don’t tend to destroy. I had a break from sittings recently and went back to the self-portrait. It was fascinating to find that I was a different person to the one I’d been a month ago. We’re called to be our most honest when we’re working from ourselves with no-one else to please or consider. And this is why I think people are so moved by self-portraits – it’s such a personal gaze. The boar in my recent self-portrait is private and symbolic. I’m interested in our relationship with animals. The boar is a powerful image for me. He – I think of him as a masculine personality – is a totemic image. There’s something comforting about having him in the studio. He’s definitely feral. There’s a feral nature in every artist.

SH: Why do you think painted portraiture is still relevant in the twenty-first century?

CG: I think it’s a primal thing. Portraiture has been a constant since Egyptian times. Making an image of another human being is endlessly fascinating. I think if you were to show a cat a drawing of itself it would be fascinated too. I think of us as animals. We see human faces and that’s what we’re drawn to. Every child makes images of faces. We can’t apply fashion to portraiture. For example if you saw an image of Kate Moss on a billboard you would look at it, want to connect with her face, but if it was just a poster of another pair of jeans it wouldn’t be so interesting.