Camera or canvas? Which conveys the truth?

There’s been a lot of debate over the past week or so about the amount of money spent by the British parliament on works of art.

Many of those making the most noise have complained that the reported £250,000 handed out since the 1990s – about £10,000 a year on average, unless my math is haywire – has been taxpayer’s money.

One of the points I picked up was that, so far as the politicians’ portraits are concerned, someone believed that photographs would’ve been cheaper than paintings.

I have to say I haven’t heard such a misguided view for quite a while!

Where’s the power?

Photographs might’ve cost less but, with the exception of the memorable portrait of Winston Churchill created by Karsh of Ottawa, and perhaps one of two of Margaret Thatcher, I cannot recall any that convey the truth of any politicians’ character, personality or dynamism.

Most say no more than the average corporate mugshot taken for an annual report.

Painting, on the other hand, is a much more searching medium.

Look at this portrait of Tony Blair, for example. Tony Blair PortraitPainted by Phil Hale in 2007, it shows a parliamentarian reaching the end of his time in office, possibly exhausted by the rigours of Prime Ministerial responsibility and perhaps contemplating the winding down of one career and the start of another.

But look at it more carefully. To me it shows a side of Tony Blair that no photograph could ever capture.

Yes, he could be described as contemplative. But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Blair looks like a man full of uncertainties; a man wondering about his key political decisions and executive actions, who has doubts about the rightness of some of his choices.

What this painting also reveals to me is a man who I believe for years projected the idea of his personal certainty by constantly displaying an up-beat appearance and an almost manic enthusiasm for global politics that bordered on messianic zeal.

Not for nothing did the cartoonist, Steve Bell, light upon Blair’s one “mad” eye as his most telling characteristic!

What’s the truth?

For me, the setting, the pose, the expression – indeed, the whole painting – shows a man uncertain of his truth.

Blair was, after all, a public-school-educated leader of the Labour Party, which is something of a contradiction in itself.

He claimed to be the working man’s MP, but is known to have admired Margaret Thatcher.

He believed he had the right prescription for all Britain’s ills, but provided some catastrophic medicine that, at times, made the patient suffer even greater pain.

He was loved when he came to power and loathed by the time he left office.

Ultimately, this image seems to be that of a man asking himself: “How will I be judged?”

And I have to ask: “Could any photograph capture – and convey – that so effectively?”

I have to say I doubt it.

Photography may lay claim to be the medium that never lies, but painting searches for and finds truths that might otherwise remain hidden.

Even Tony Blair might agree with that.

A postscript

Blair always pointedly refused to sit for artists while he was in office. This portrait was commissioned towards the end of his tenure. Hugo Swire, who chaired the committee that appointed Phil Hale (a Boston-born American artist who lives in London) said at the time that he chose Hale because he was impressed by his portrait of the composer, Thomas Adès, which hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. You can see more of Hale’s work at Allen Spiegel Fine Arts. Go visit!

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