Traditional portrait-painting is making a quiet comeback as shifting consumer tastes and increasing affluence broaden the appeal of classical portraiture.
Arabella Dorman, who works from her studio in Chelsea, is in the vanguard of this revival. She produces portraits in oil, charcoal and sepia as well as life-size busts. Prices range from about £1,000 for a charcoal work to £8,000 or more for full-length or group oil portraits. Both private and corporate clients seem keen to acquire top-quality traditional paintings – for the home, the university or the boardroom.
Analysing the renewed appeal of portrait paintings, Ms Dorman says: “They are a huge status symbol and there is a real sense that once you’ve had your portrait painted and displayed you’ve ‘arrived’.”
Ms Dorman’s painting is finding favour for its traditionalism. She paints exclusively from face-to-face sittings in adherence to the British school of portraiture, using the traditional sight-size method associated with past masters such as John Singer Sargent and Henry Raeburn.
This personal connection puts clients at ease. “It’s a two-way relationship and the subject has to know and trust you because, in a way, you’re immortalising them,” Ms Dorman explains. During a minimum of four sittings she aims to develop a rapport that enables the portrait to “move beyond mere illustration, into the very essence of the sitter, becoming a process of revelation and evocation as well as of description”.
Ms Dorman’s work is not limited to traditional portraiture, however. She also paints animal portraits and landscapes and was recently embedded with the British military in Basra as a war artist.
“I’m especially interested in painting that is relevant to the contemporary world. Portraits of soldiers in Iraq, or paintings addressing the conflict there, provide the owner with a point of access to real, significant history,” she said.
This traditional approach is paying off: Ms Dorman has painted various public figures including Richard Handover, former chief executive of WH Smith, and General Sir Jack Deverell, commander of allied forces in north Europe; and she has undertaken numerous private family commissions. Her paintings from Iraq will go on display next year, followed by an exhibition of her portraits in New York.