The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition is open now until Saturday 13 May.
David Cobley, member of the RP, has created an incredible portrait of Sir David Attenborough. The Study of his painting for the BBC, is featured within the exhibition. The BBC approached Annabel Elton, head of commissions at the RP, who advised them and helpfully guided them through a selection process, until they found the ideal artist to work with.
We asked David Cobley about his experience of painting the legendary Sir David Attenborough, and spoke to him about his work more broadly:
It must have been amazing to be selected to paint Sir David Attenborough! How did you prepare in advance?
As soon as I heard the BBC was thinking of asking me to carry out the commission, I did everything I could to get it. I dropped what I was doing to trawl through hundreds of photos and videos of him online, looking for something that showed him communicating his knowledge and enthusiasm for the natural world. By the following morning I was able to send Annabel a couple of mockups to show the BBC what I thought might work.
An early photoshop composition mockup
How many sittings were there?
I met Sir David at his home in Richmond with Robert Seatter, Head of BBC History, in early 2019. We were there for a couple of hours. When you speak to Sir David he looks you in the eye and listens to you with great intensity - as if you were the only creature left on earth after a major catastrophe! I had a camera with me and took one or two photos of him inside the house and in the garden. I suppose I already knew that I would be basing my portrait on images of him already out there on film, so it was more to record my visit. It was the only time I had with him until the unveiling at Broadcasting House earlier this year.
You have captured him in a very animated way as if he is in the middle of telling the viewer about an amazing animal discovery - how did you decide on this pose?
Isn’t he always in the middle of telling us something interesting? The BBC wanted a portrait that celebrated Sir David’s contribution to broadcasting. When I shut my eyes and thought of him, I saw him in the act of explaining why this or that aspect of the natural world was so ‘extraordinary’. I could almost hear his voice.
David Cobley’s study and portrait, in his studio, November 2019
How did you decide what to surround Sir David with?
I would have surrounded him with every one of the animals, plants and insects he has brought to our screens if there had been room. It was important to have at least one creature that was representative of the air, of the land and of the sea. The orangutan seemed particularly important, as the logging of ancient rainforests has had such a devastating impact on its habitat, and because we are such close relatives. The same forests are also home to the brightly coloured Sun Conure - its posture suggesting it has been startled by the fall of another tree nearby.
What have been people’s reactions to the painting and has Sir David Attenborough commented on it?
Everyone seems to like it very much. Sir David took the trouble of writing to thank me, and said that he was flattered that I included Darwin’s notebook in the composition.
How do you go about capturing someone’s likeness?
Drawing is key. Anyone interested in rendering the physical world in two dimensions has to start first by looking, and then by drawing. I could go on at great length about why drawing from life is so important. Leave your phone, camera and other digital devices at home, pick up a pencil and paper and go outside and start drawing what you see. It's all there, before your very eyes!
You have a wonderful record of impressive commissions, which portraits have been your favourite to do?
Each one has been special and I have enjoyed them all. For the brief time you are working on a portrait, you and the sitter become the very best of friends. It is remarkable how open we can be with each other. It was wonderful to spend time backstage with Sir Ken Dodd. I had a unique insight into the life of a comedian at the top of his game, as well as a glimpse of the man behind the performer, but working on the one of Sir David has been particularly memorable, for so many reasons.
How do your celebrity commissions differ from others? Is there more pressure since it is such a familiar face that thousands of people around the world can recognise?
I hate the idea of celebrity. We are all celebrities in a way. You are a celebrity, I am a celebrity. We have the starring role in our own particular soap opera, mini-series or feature-length film, and are at the very centre of our own very special universe. I treat every painting as important as the next, whomever the subject might be.
Are there any other commissions you have recently worked on that you have particularly enjoyed?
I was asked by the parents of a young man in the prime of his life, if I would paint a portrait of their son - a husband and father of two, who had died suddenly and unexpectedly. One feels very privileged to be asked, and a great sense of responsibility to do the very best one can.
Your other painting in the RP annual exhibition, Serenade, has a very painterly feel to it, with the interior being the focal point of the piece, and light playing a beautiful role - what is the story behind this painting?
A delightful couple invited me to their house in Gibraltar to paint their portrait. This is a study for a larger painting that hangs on their wall at home. Despite appearances and the sobering effect of experience, I am still a romantic at heart, and watching her listening to the sound of his guitar made my heart strings flutter. I particularly love working with oil on canvas as I have access to every pigment under the sun and the freedom to constantly make changes.
What would you say to encourage someone to visit the RP Annual Exhibition?
At the RP exhibition, you never know who you might meet, either in person or on the wall, or both, and people are absolutely fascinating!
The RP's impressive history and royal patronage means the society carries a certain authority. Its commissioning service, headed by the brilliant Annabel Elton, makes it very easy for someone with no previous experience of commissioning a portrait to find the right painter to carry out the work. Visit the RP website to learn more about commissioning a portrait.
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We hope you enjoyed hearing from David Cobley, and get the chance to see his impressive painting of Sir David Attenborough, amongst a multitude of other fantastic portraits hanging on the walls of Mall Galleries. If you can’t make it in person, don’t forget that you can also browse and buy the works online.