Publication: The Times
Wow. It is probably not the most statesmanlike term she will ever utter, but it was the hugely expressive reaction of Nicola Sturgeon on clapping eyes on her first official portrait.
The first minister came face to face with the nearly life-size painting yesterday at Bute House, her official residence in Edinburgh, cupping her face in her hands as she regarded the painting with something like awe.
“It’s amazing, ” she whispered to no one in particular, although Gerard M Burns, the artist, was at her side.
“I’m glad you like it,” he responded with a smile. “To be confronted by an almost life-size image . . . ” Before he completed the thought, Ms Sturgeon had silenced him with her next crack. “Neil Gow looks amazing,” she said.
Subject and artist were standing in the drawing room where the work had been modelled just a few months ago. In the picture, Ms Sturgeon is shown standing by the sofa, in front of a famous portrait of Gow, the 18th-century fiddler, by Sir Henry Raeburn, which hangs on the wall.
“That’s a wee bit of swagger on my part, to place one of my portraits before the Raeburn, which was a bit naughty perhaps,” Burns conceded.
Ms Sturgeon admitted that she was pleased, saying: “It’s a bit strange to see myself on canvas but Gerard is such a talented artist and it’s a big honour. I’m very happy with it.”
The artist came to the attention of a wider public when he designed a Christmas card for Alex Salmond, Bute House’s recently departed resident. In that 2009 illustration, Burns chose to portray a sad child tramping through a snowy landscape, trailing a Saltire in her wake, as if waiting for the spring to raise her battle standard.
The moment of rebirth may have arrived. The SNP lost the independence referendum, but romping ahead in the opinion polls it appears to many observers to have won “the peace” that has followed.
For her part, after a matter of months as party leader, Ms Sturgeon is widely judged to be among the UK’s most complete politicians. That quality is reflected in her portrait, which depicts her in the red dress designed by the Edinburgh designers Totty Rocks for her inauguration as first minister.
Burns said he had reflected Ms Sturgeon’s best characteristics, “her youth, her femininity, her confidence”. He added: “It’s got a wee bit of swagger about it, a wee bit of gallus.”
The artist rejects an abstract approach, and uses photographs as the basis for his ultra-realistic paintings, which are created in his studio. Ms Sturgeon’s portrait was among 16 he completed over about five months for an exhibition in New York next month to celebrate Scotland week. He said: “The likeness should be a given. It shouldn’t be questioned. When you paint someone’s portrait it will look like them, it must look like them.”
Among the 15 other works are portraits of the actors Ewan McGregor, Brian Cox and Alan Cumming, and the comedian Billy Connolly. The journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Wark, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, QC, and the actress Laura Fraser of Breaking Bad have also been painted, along with the composer Craig Armstrong, the author Denise Mina and the designer Iona Crawford.
A portrait of Elaine C Smith dressed in full pantomime costume features in the exhibition. The actress, a prominent Yes Scotland campaigner, was given the first glimpse of it alongside Ms Sturgeon at yesterday’s reception.
Smith said she was delighted with the picture, which portrays her as Dame Potty from Beauty and the Beast, a role she has performed for the past six years at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen.
A portrait of parallels
At first sight, this seems to be a traditional take on the idea of portraiture by Gerard M Burns (Giles Sutherland writes). It shows Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House, posed in front of another portrait — Sir Henry Raeburn’s study of the fiddler Niel Gow — which was completed in 1787. Gow was considered one of Scotland’s finest contemporaneous musicians
The first minister is shown here with her right hand placed on the back of an elegant chair. In the background, details from the Georgian interior of the house include a panelled door and a classically derived frieze. By contrast, although her apparel is also stylish, Ms Sturgeon wears a half-sleeved, knee-length red dress.
The juxtaposition of diverse imagery is one of Burns’s visual tropes. His inclusion here of Raeburn’s portrait may be more than a recording of reality. It could suggest parallels between the accomplishments of the famous fiddler, who wooed his audience with music, and those of Ms Sturgeon, who has developed into an accomplished politician, who knows well how to use words and oratory.
The timing of the unveiling is interesting. Burns’s complimentary and sympathetic take contrasts with the recent representation of Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond in The Guardian by Steve Bell, the cartoonist. It shows the pair, satirised in Highland dress, accompanied by a less-than-kind text.
Images are important, and the timing of this one is, possibly, more than a coincidence.