I came to art like a hungry boy to a banquet. Over the course of my 30-year career, I’ve explored its delights and depths, from landscape, still life and the nude, to abstraction, religious painting and portraiture. The result is an oeuvre of over 400 paintings and drawings – a selection of which has now been organised into my book, Divining the Human.
Portraiture has always been central to my work – the narrative thread that weaves all its different parts together. I’m especially fascinated by the challenge of painting an actor in character and capturing the drama of their imagined, psychological state.
In 2016, Kenneth Branagh invited me to portray the leading actors in his season of plays at the Garrick Theatre, giving me exclusive backstage access.
With butterflies in my belly and a sketchpad under my arm, I knocked on the dressing room door of Dame Judi Dench. She immediately put me at ease with her graciousness, impish wit and willingness to accommodate. I made a drawing of her in conté and pencil, and then returned the following night to start a full-length painting. Judi was playing Paulina in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, the no-nonsense truth-teller who calls out Leontes on his delusional jealousy. Halfway through the play, the Bard has the Figure of Time walk on to relate the incidences of the past 17 years. Traditionally a male role, Branagh had the inspired idea to cast Judi in the part.
She was in a druid’s costume when I returned, which inspired my vision of her as Old Mother Time emerging from the primordial mists. I asked her to recreate the emotional state of her portrayal, and she let fall upon me an epic gaze and towering demeanour that was transfixing. She had doubled in size; I was beholding Eternity itself.
My next portrait subject was Sir Derek Jacobi as Mercutio, the dapper rogue and best friend of Romeo. “Come in,” came the gently sonorous reply to my knock. I entered his dressing room and found him reading the Evening Standard in his undershorts. He duly folded the paper, put on pin-striped trousers and presented himself for work.
I asked him to recite his lines and go through a fluid succession of poses as I sketched and snapped photos. I switched off the lights and used an intense, hand-held halogen to light him from below and above. He dreamily recited his lines, abandoned to the shadow.
The first portrait gives us the quizzical Mercutio, all dandyish hauteur and wild surmise. In the second, more experimental work, I pushed the palette and modelling to capture a complex man undone by his relentless need to take liberties, spouting witticisms even as he dies by the sword: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
‘Divining the Human: The Art of Alexander Newley’ is out now