Daphne Todd – A Woman’s Work

The portrait artist has painted her mothers corpse, and Prince Charles, but she tells Sophie Walker why she is never satisfied

Daphne Todd was the first female president of the Royal Society of portrait painters from 1994 to 2000, and she won the BP Portrait Award in 2010 for a controversial portrait of her 100 year-old mother’s corpse. But this is a humble lady.

She has just returned from South Africa and Tanzania as the chief tour artist for the Prince of Wales and the Royal Duchess, which she says was really rather an “extraordinary experience”.

Daphne’s portraits are re-knowned for their honesty, which is a product of her insistence on painting from real life, rather than from photographs. I ask how, on the Royal tour, where the couple would go to up to 7 venues a day, was conducive to her style of observation. But she says, “I couldn’t work in a way which was appropriate to recording greeting line ups with local singing and dancing and then there were walkabouts, because I need a lot of time. There was no expectation that I could, but it was a question of simply recording my experience, indeed I’d never been to Africa before.”

“The tour security was amazing, but I was a little scared when I was painting in Soweto. I couldn’t dawdle, whereas when my daughter was small I used to forget to pick her up sometimes because I was so engrossed!” She is clearly consumed in her work, even when she was grieving,
“I wanted to demonstrate what you can do as a human being, in the time given, so the portraits are like British studies. You’re constrained by real life anyway, so it was exciting rather than frustrating. At the end, when I showed the Prince and Duchess, what I had done, they seemed very pleased.
Although Daphne was proud of the portraits on the tour, I ask her whether she always meets her expectations. “Very rarely, but that’s the point to always be unimpressed really, otherwise why would you do it?” Her humility is surprising considering how much of her work has been validated by such prestigious awards over the years, including being awarded an OBE in 2003 for services to the arts.

There is a little wise scepticism regarding the extent to which the awards validate her work though.

“I’ve been around long enough to know what jury’s want- they tend to look for something unusual. There is a lot of luck in it. Not getting into a certain competition doesn’t mean your work isn’t any good, it depends on the panel, and whether or not they had nice lunch.”

“I have been pleased with what I have won though, because when I was at the Slade back in the day, we were told that women can’t do it; there are no great women artists. Winning a little prize is silly but it proves to you that you can do it, as a woman”, she says quietly triumphant.

As the first female president of the Royal society, it’s poignant and it saddens me, that a woman who has made such an extraordinary contribution to art, feels her legacy is undermined merely because of her sex. She admits to “still having a huge amount of self-doubt”. But, her achievements ought dissolve any doubt. At the society Daphne was responsible for some inspired, progressive moves.

“I looked outwards rather than inwards. I realised we should help other people rather than get them to help us, as poor struggling artists. I instigated a connection with the Changing Faces charity that’s gone on since my time in office; they even have their own prize because it prospered so well. The good you do always comes back to you.”

It was this sort of attitude, of making portraiture accessible to the masses that has defined the success of the People’s Portraits, a project funded by the artists themselves to paint working people. “It was our way of saying, ‘look, these are the people of the backbone of the society. It went down terribly well, it wasn’t just portraits of people at the top of the ladder.” However, the collection’s permanent home now is at Girton College, Cambridge. Maybe Liverpool would have been slightly more appropriate.

Daphne’s advocacy of traditional teaching characterises the mark she left not only on the society, but on the Heatherly School as well.
“I’m a natural conservative. I wanted to help stop it going the way as the other art colleges, now it’s all conceptual art, and very few places actually teach drawing and painting. It’s mad in my view, Britain had an international reputation for our fine art, we had the very first national portrait gallery, and it’s the ridiculous the way things have changed.

Is it a cultural thing?

“It’s gone beyond that. We now have a set of teachers in art colleges who just don’t have those skills so it’s gone through a whole generation. The right critical comments about painting are not critically made anymore. Galleries and Tate and the Turner prizes have brought in non-traditional painters, and it just hasn’t stopped.”

But Daphne is not against progress altogether, indeed, portraiture doesn’t have to be old fashioned and formal. There are some painters that are straddling the divide between the generations but, “people who commission portraits are generally conservative themselves, and they don’t want to be painted bright pink, they want a likeness!”

Our generation is one desperate to make an instant YouTube hit, rather than long-term impact. Fame has become such an important part of getting on in life. Daphne laughs, “it’s a particularly male thing to be extreme and to make your mark.”

I end by asking Daphne if she has anything that she wants to leave her mark on, anticipating no radical answer. I was wrong. “I feel like I’d like an entirely different style of painting, but it’s a bit like travelling, you think you’ll leave yourself behind and actually you take yourself with you.”

No doubt wherever she goes next, if she takes herself, that won’t be such a bad thing.

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