Tess Barnes, a local artist, gives us the who what why where when and how about herself and her one woman exhibition: ‘Women of Substance’ is sponsored by First Direct and runs at the Mall Galleries 25 February – 1 March 2008
One rainy afternoon at Chelsea Art College the tutor called out… ‘draw each other’. After a while fellow students said ‘look Tess keeps getting a likeness’. I thought ‘isn’t everyone else?’ This was the start of an obsession! During the following years I began receiving portrait commissions and twice had success at the National Portrait Gallery in the BP portrait award.
At the age of 29 I gained a place at Goldsmiths College in London to study Fine Art with Damien Hirst in the year above me. Within the first term I was told by a tutor that portraiture was not art
and was called a ‘prostitute’ by some students because I stayed in La Rochelle in France during the summer months and drew 20-minute portrait sketches
- actually this was great training and experience for me. I had a fantastic 3 years at Goldsmiths and graduated with a BA Hons in Fine Art. Having graduated from Goldsmiths in 1991, where I believe I was the only student to use paint in our degree show, I continued with my painting career and gave birth to my first daughter Emma.
I suddenly felt a great affinity with womankind and wondered how women with high profile jobs and careers managed to cope both emotionally and physically with their work and children.
I had always been aware that, as a portrait artist, it was important to potential clients that the work I could show them was of people they could recognise. As I felt that portraits were often historically of male figures, I decided to embark on a series of portraits of women.
I soon realised that many women feel that they have to make a decision either to have children or focus on a career, or they feel simply too tied up with the constraints of work that the world of family and children are put to one side. I wanted to include in this collection a spectrum of all women so as to celebrate the wealth of talents of women in all work fields and to highlight the still current inequality.
This project that I have undertaken has become the most fascinating and stimulating endeavour that I could ever have thought of. The figure 50 is significant in three ways…
I am in my 50th year, there are 50 portraits in the collection and 50/50 is what we need in the workplace.
The women who have given their time to this project have been fantastic, so many of them recommended other women to sit for me and supported me by deciding to buy their finished portrait. The time that I have spent in their company finding out about how they cope, enjoy and generally handle their working lives, has been intriguing and rewarding.
The backgrounds of each of their portraits have played a big part in the feel of each painting. For the first ten or so paintings I decided what to incorporate myself, for example Valerie Amos, former Leader of the House of Lords, loved to watch a particular overground tube line which she could see in the distance from her flat in North London so I was determined to portray this particular tube line in the painting! Jenni Murray at one time during our sittings in her basement flat in London was slightly late, on seeing me she exclaimed, ‘Haven’t you got a book?’ Such a bookworm, she explained that she would have rushed to the nearest bookshop and bought me one! So overloaded bookshelves it was for her background!After a while the backgrounds began to be mutually decided, the women themselves had ideas of what they would like and these became even more captivating for me to paint!
I have also written a book, Women of Substance: 50 Portraits of High Profile Women of Our Times
It has pictures of all 50 portraits, biographies of all women in the collection and the sitters have responded to 8 questions set out by Kathy Lette the author, such as “What has been your biggest obstacle?”…to which, for example,
Stella Rimington, ex MI5, responded “Men”!
Of course the crème de la crème happened when First Direct agreed to sponsor this exhibition on March 8th, which unbelievably is International Women’s Day! They are a business that has been a delight to work with, I could never have hoped for such a lovely relationship.
I am delighted to be able to support Breast Cancer Haven during the London launch and the tour which goes to Leeds, Oxford, Birmingham and Cambridge. Not only will this great charity gain funds via the auction prizes generously donated by many of the sitters but they will also receive 30% of all sales of the book.