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Artist Paul Emsley responds to controversy over Kate's portrait

January 22, 2013
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When the Duchess of Cambridge was presented with her first official portrait, the delighted royal described artist Paul Emsley's work as "brilliant, amazing, absolutely brilliant". But despite Kate's enthusiastic reaction, public opinion has been somewhat more divided.


Speaking exclusively to HELLO!, Paul reveals how he and his family were hurt by some of the acerbic comments which surrounded what is arguably the most important work of his career. "Some of the words written about it were so personal. I'd be inhuman if I said it didn't affect me," Mr Emsley admits. "When you take on commissions like this it is hazardous and you expect a bit of flak, but I expected nothing like the criticism I have received. I didn't expect it to go to the levels it did. "It felt like a bit of a witch hunt and people who have not even seen my portrait joined in with what quickly became a circus. The worst thing is it was not only destructive to me, but particularly upsetting for my two daughters and my wife. "It really wasn't pleasant and I stopped reading what had been written. I have coped with the criticism by going back into my studio and getting on with it.


"At first the attacks were so vicious that there was a point where I myself doubted that the portrait of the Duchess was any good. But now I've had time to reflect, I am still happy with it and am getting on with my life. There is nothing I would have changed." The 75-year-old has his own ideas why the painting has sparked such controversy, saying: "I believe half the problem is the portrait doesn't photograph well and I would encourage people to go and see it [at the National Portrait Gallery].

When pregnant Kate herself made the trip earlier in the month with Prince William, she had nothing but praise for the man who had become the first to immortalise her royal persona. The Duke of Cambridge also appeared pleased, saying: "It's beautiful, it's absolutely beautiful." The Duchess, an avid art fan who studied history of art at St Andrew's University, was involved in the selection process, which resulted in Paul being chosen to paint her. She took part in two sittings, in May and June last year, at his studio in the West Country, and at Kensington Palace. He then completed the work using a series of photographs which were taken during the sittings.


Paul revealed he much preferred painting from photographs. "I'm always worried about the sitter - are they cold, are they hot, are they comfortable?" he said. "Photography today is so accurate and so good that it's really so much easier just to take photographs and work from them." The painter, who was the 2007 winner of the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award competition, first thought he would depict his subject without a smile. But on meeting her, he changed his mind: "The Duchess explained that she would like to be portrayed naturally - her natural self - as opposed to her official self. "She struck me as enormously open and generous and a very warm person. After initially feeling it was going to be an unsmiling portrait I think it was the right choice in the end to have her smiling - that is really who she is." The artist also knew he wanted to put the focus on Kate's brunette mane. "Everyone, I think, recognises her partly through her lovely hair," he explained. "I've altered the colour of the eyes slightly to match the colour of the blouse and the blue background." For her part, Kate told the artist's daughter during the unveiling that she "had such a fun time at the studio".  The work took three-and-a-half months to complete using a technique of building thin layers of oil and glazes on canvas. The painting, which is titled HRH The Duchess of Cambridge, will be displayed as part of the National Portrait Gallery's Contemporary Collections.  Read the full exclusive interview with Paul Emsley in HELLO! Magazine Issue 1261, out now 

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