Poor Paul Emsley. The backlash against his portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge has been swift and sharp – the iron tip of an art critical bullwhip. The Independent’s Michael Glover railed against the catastrophic likeness with its "hamsterish cheeks" and "dropsical face". The Sunday Times’ Waldemar Januszczak found it "ordinary", "a disappointment", and a "letdown to the Duchess". And then there were that unfavorable comparison to an imagined “kitschy” rendering of North Korean despot Kim Jong Un. At least the sitter herself called it "amazing" – though her response rings less of genuine glee and more a general acquiescence to controversy.
It’s a shame Emsley’s come into the spotlight for a picture gone wrong, because in fact he’s quite a talented draftsman. The 2007 PB Portrait Award winner may not be the earth-shaking Lucien Freud type we hoped would warp the new royal face into something more thrilling, but he’s none-the-less a very accomplished artist. Especially with chalk and pencil:
He also appears to have a bit of a thing for floral arrangements:
Emsley has defended his work, saying that “it’s not to everyone’s taste, and I understand that. I’m developed enough as an artist to understand that there are different points of view. I have to believe in what I do.”
He’s also excused the portrait’s flatness by pointing out that painting young pretty people is much harder than painting old wrinkly ones…
‘The fact she is a beautiful woman is, for an artist, difficult. When you have lines and wrinkles it is much easier as an artist to capture them as a person. Obviously she has none of that.”
An interesting point, as this brief tour through his previous work seems to confirm just that. He’s a definite dab hand with those of a wizened visage; it’s when he has a crack at all those fresh pretty flowers (and princesses, it turns out) that things seem to get rather bland.
[All images: Paul Emsley]