In 1954, when Winston Churchill first saw the portrait of him commissioned from Graham Sutherland – then the leading artist in Britain – by the Houses of Lords and Commons he was appalled, and so was his wife Clementine. The picture showed him without grandeur, barely even posing, but gripping the arms of a chair and staring out at the viewer with a slightly indignant lift to his chin. The wartime prime minister thought the realism – no noble pose, no swish of robes, no parkland background or columns à la Van Dyck – made him look like “a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand” and, what’s more, one who in a once-imagined, never-forgotten simile, was “straining a stool”.
In the freshly unveiled portrait of Churchill’s Conservative descendant Theresa May, the 2016-19 prime minister looks as though she has just heard Churchill say the word “stool” and the look on her face is one of cold disdain at such vulgarity. However, while the Churchills took Sutherland’s offending portrait back to their home, Chartwell, where it was later burned, May says her portrait is “a huge honour” – admittedly, not quite the same as saying she likes it.
The artist, Saied Dai, created the portrait – at a cost of £28,000 – for Portcullis House, the MPs’ office complex just across from the houses of parliament. It was commissioned by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art to add to parliament’s rich stock of images of eminent politicians.
If Sutherland’s portrait of Churchill nodded to the past, in particular to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s celebrated 1832 painting of Monsieur Bertin, Dai also pays his respects to tradition. His model is Pietro Annigoni’s 1955 portrait of another female leader, Queen Elizabeth II, but with May, all in blue, wearing not the robes of the Order of the Garter but a coat with military overtones – gold buttons and piping – a suggestion, perhaps, of the battles she fought with her own party. A russet trim on her collar complements the shade of her nail varnish and, for students of symbolism in portraiture, she holds a stem on lily-of-the-valley in her hand, a flower that blooms in, yes, May. The background is a green curtain and the style of the picture is slightly choppy, angular and entirely inoffensive.
Dai, showing why artists are well advised not to discuss their own work, said his “aim was to produce not just a convincing physical likeness, but also a psychological characterisation, both individual and yet archetypal – imbued with symbolism and atmosphere”. Leaving himself more of a hostage to fortune, he added that: “A good painting needs to be a revelation and also, paradoxically, an enigma. It should possess an indefinable quality – in short, a mystery.”
Those who know May personally are best-placed to judge to what extent Dai has succeeded and whether the froideur in the painting is true to life, the pose characteristic, the enigma and mystery present and correct. To strangers who know her only from the television, it is a decent representation that captures the sitter’s personal style and desire to remain statesmanlike regardless of the febrile times of her premiership.
As for the mystery, her expression may not be very mysterious at all: here is a woman who has just caught sight of Boris Johnson.
[See also: The revenge of Theresa May]