The portrait began with caveman spitting pigment over the back of their hands onto walls. It peaked with the grandiose royal commissions of the Renaissance. Now Jonathan Yeo is continuing in this tradition with his daubings of the great and the good at The Lowry in Salford.

If you think that Sir Tom Jones is a bit of namedropper on The Voice then Yeo is his artistic equivalent – virtually everyone who sits for him is a household name. It is interesting to see this cleverly curated show next to L.S. Lowry’s work in the next door gallery which focuses on ordinary folk.

The tone is set when you walk in the door and are face-to-face with a huge portrait in deep greens of Damien Hirst. The art terrorist is swaddled in a wet suit in one of the tanks which housed his iconic animals in formaldehyde. While Yeo is a self-taught artist, his gift is managing to find the central core of his subject. In Hirst’s case it is his smugness at mugging the art world. Kevin-Spacey_2849648b

In his early days Yeo experimented with cubism which works really well on sympathetic portraits of elder statesmen like the Duke of Edinburgh or Parky. As my partner pointed out, he also has an impish sense of humour when he paints camp comic David Walliams in the style of Rembrandt, or model Erin O’Connor with more than a hint of Klimt.

Yeo’s old man served in John Major’s government so it’s not surprising that politicians feature. The highlight is a washed out portrait of Blair capturing his intellectual steel, juxtaposed with a red poppy screaming out of the canvas as a lasting reminder of the wars he launched.

Fellow warmonger George W Bush made the mistake of ‘impolitely’ cancelling a sitting so Yeo responded by crafting his portrait out of explicit fragments of hardcore porn mags. Unsettling, but very funny.

Maxine PeakeOne of the galleries is wall-to-wall to celebs including a crafty portrait of Helena Bonham-Carter. For me, she was depicted as full of self-love and emptiness. Ironically it’s next to a powerful, but fragile, canvas of cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry garbed as his alter ego Clare in the frilly bedroom he keeps in his home for her.

But the undoubted highlight is a new portrait of local lass Maxine Peake which absolutely nails the odd combination of inner steel and lack of pretence at the heart of an actor who is rapidly becoming a national treasure.

Yeo’s talent for getting behind the masks of his media-savvy subjects makes you wonder what they say when he unveils the finished work. For the rest of us mere mortals it is a fascinating window into the vulnerabilities and strengths of the famous.

Review by Paul Clarke


Jonathan Yeo – Portraits runs at The Lowry in Salford until June 29, 2014