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4 December 2014

Derren Brown’s tricks of the eye

Helen Lewis meets the illusionist and secret portrait painter. 

By Helen Lewis

It began with drawing his teachers. The young Derren Brown – a quiet, nervous boy – discovered that he could impress his fellow pupils at the Whitgift School in Croydon by caricaturing authority figures. “It was all a big play for attention,” he says now. “Magic’s also a bit like that – a distancing measure; a way of being impressive if you don’t feel impressive.”

Performing tricks and illusions on television has been Brown’s day job for more than a decade now. Throughout that time, he has also painted celebrity caricatures on vast canvases, further cluttering his taxidermy-stuffed house. In 2009, he gathered them into a book called Portraits. Its cover features a monochrome Clint Eastwood, whose hard-eyed stare is perfectly recognisable despite being placed in a face shaped like a butternut squash.

At 43, though, Brown feels that he has finally grown out of the need to caricature. In his latest portraits, displayed at the Rebecca Hossack gallery in central London, he has resisted his natural urge to distort his subjects’ faces. “It was a conscious effort to move away,” he says. “I just feel more grown up.” Instead, the new paintings are hyperreal: layers of acrylic paint give astonishing detail to hair and skin.

Brown’s own appearance has followed a similar path away from the OTT – the Mephistophelian goatee has gone, as have the Gothic outfits. Today, he is wearing a flat cap; it’s warm, but it also reduces the chances of being recognised.

Being so well known must make it difficult to capture the street photographs that make up part of the exhibition, I say. “I’ve always been used to keeping my head down, but once you start taking pictures like this, it’s the opposite. You have to be very engaged and very open. I was very struck that it didn’t make any difference – I didn’t get any more stopped or less stopped.”

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The controlling, superior image that it is necessary to project in order to be a successful hypnotist brings its own problems: “I have had friends who have said that, the first few times they met me, they thought I was ‘doing something’ to them.” It was only several meetings later that they realised he was honestly trying to be friendly, rather than playing an elaborate mind game.

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I tell Brown that the caricatures seem more like the natural product of his stage persona. “Yes, because they’re warping and controlling. Once, a student had a massive go at me – he launched into a tirade about how I clearly have to take the world, and shift it, and control it . . . before I can accept it.” He smiles equably. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Brown also feels that his magic has matured: he now does fewer television shows and concentrates instead on touring in theatres. “I’ve moved away from doing magic on TV now, because you’re in people’s homes. What we hear on TV, we’re used to that being gospel. That’s a different context to being on stage, where it’s a show and you’re clearly seeing an entertainer.”

What does that mean? “You have greater licence. Ultimately, my job is to entertain. There are a couple of magicians I really like, but they insist on never lying to the audience, which is an interesting choice. I think it’s misguided. When I see the show, I’m screaming in my head: just lie to me. It’s fine.”

He does not, however, apply that rationale to his portraits, which are honest to the point of brutality in recording laughter lines and other human flaws. “Mum doesn’t like hers,” Brown says. “She was a model when she was younger. She’s a beautiful lady but, clearly, it’s not very forgiving.”