Jonathan Yeo (b.1970)
"When I watched Lily on stage I was struck by her otherworldly presence and how her performance as Helen of Troy seemed to transcend any modern day context, taking the audience to a completely different space..."
Jonathan Yeo (b.1970) is a self-taught figurative artist, often credited with reinvigorating British portraiture in the twenty first century. He has painted politicians, activists, actors, writers and artists. Among these, notable sitters include David Cameron, the Duke of Edinburgh, Malala Yousafzai and Damien Hirst. Truly a portraitist for the modern age, he employs a variety of media including photography and collage, while exploring contemporary themes such as social media, cosmetic surgery and pornography. Yeo’s first major portrait commission came in 1993 from anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. He continued to receive a steady stream of high-profile commissions, but was propelled into the public limelight in 2007 due to publicity surrounding his controversial portrait of, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair wearing a blood-red poppy. In 2013, the National Portrait Gallery staged a critically-acclaimed mid-career retrospective of Yeo and was attended by an astonishing 290,000 visitors. In 2016, his largest retrospective to date was held at the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark.
Having received no formal training beyond a few life drawing classes, artistic influences have filtered through Yeo’s work in a piecemeal fashion. He cites David Bomberg, Georges Braque and Picasso - works he saw at Tate as a teenager - as early inspirations. The uncompromising scrutiny with which Yeo approaches his sitters has meant he if often compared to Lucian Freud. Yeo denies the influence was conscious, but admits their similarities, acknowledging that Freud’s intuitive understanding of colour is something to be admired by all portrait painters. Working from photographs and direct observation, with sittings often spanning several weeks or months his portraits represent a series of encounters, inevitably imbued with a personal response to his subjects. In his studio, Yeo sits high up above his sitters, who he places beneath carefully manipulated studio lighting while he works wet paint rapidly onto large canvases.
Yeo’s distinctive style combines both naturalistic colouring and finely rendered detail with painterly, abstract backgrounds, as seen Lily Cole as Helen of Troy. His use of visible canvas ground and pencilled grid squares counteracts the illusive three dimensionality of his modelling, reminding viewers of the essential falsity of the flat canvas. According to Yeo, this juxtaposition of clarity and fragmentation recreates the disjointed nature of visual memory, while the process of artistic creation is laid bare. Thus, Yeo hones in on those aspects of painting unrivalled by photography.
As so many of his sitters are iconic public figures, Yeo’s portraits naturally grapple with themes of fame, celebrity and public image. Throughout his career he has been particularly drawn to actors having executed portraits of Dennis Hopper, Nicole Kidman and Kristen Scott-Thomas. ‘An actor presents a fundamental problem,’ says Yeo, ‘the better they do their job, the harder it is for me to do mine.’ His interest in portraying actors in character begun with Kevin Spacey, who he painted first as Richard III (2013), and later as fictional US President Frank Underwood (2016), from the acclaimed House of Cards Netflix series. ‘It’s always interesting when you’re painting someone who in their own right commands so much attention, but it gets even more exciting when they are inhabiting the role of another icon,’ he explains. This is, in part, a nod to the tradition of theatrical portraiture, but also a means to explore abstract notions of identity, fiction and reality. It has also been suggested by Peter Michael Hornung in his essay on Yeo that being portrayed in character affords an actor ‘a level of privacy from the portrait artist’s probing eye.’
Lily Cole is a British actress, model and activist. In addition she graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2008 with a double first in History of Art. Cole and Yeo had been engaged in discussion over the portrait for over a year before their first sitting took place, at which time Cole was playing Helen in The Last Days of Troy, Simon Armitage’s theatrical reworking of Homer’s Iliad. Yeo saw the production at the Globe and, with Cole’s agreement, the portrait took on a new, theatrical dimension. ‘When I watched Lily on stage I was struck by her otherworldly presence and how her performance as Helen of Troy seemed to transcend any modern day context, taking the audience to a completely different space. I hope the painting conveys that sense, while at the same time doing what no stage performer ever does: engaging the viewer in a direct gaze. I think this engagement with the viewer, combined with her etherealness, makes the spectator feel at once both confronted by, and strangely intimate with, this powerful character.’
Helen of Troy, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, has been a popular artistic subject for centuries. Traditionally a personification of ideal beauty, she is most often shown being forcibly abducted by Paris; her physical body always central to her depiction. Yeo has broken with tradition here, in keeping with Armitage’s modernisation of the classical tale. Only Cole’s face is clearly delineated, her body a sketched outline, while she scrutinises the viewer with both angst and verve. It is her face that is emphasised as the source of her power and adopted identity. ‘When I look at it, I do not see myself, I see myself as another’ says Cole. ‘I see Helen and what I came to know of her. I see the strength, the pain, and the penetrating gaze of a woman who has haunted the human imagination for several thousand years since she was understood as the catalyst for war. Perhaps most interestingly, I see her seeing us.’ It is this aspect of Yeo’s work that is so enrapturing. Lily Cole takes the figure of another thus assumes an adoptive position. This imbues Yeo’s portrait with a sense of theatre and ultimately provides the viewer with an additional layer of representation.
 ‘Lily Cole portrait by Jonathan Yeo to make its debut at Laing Art Gallery Newcastle’ The Journal (5 November 2014)
 Christopher Marlowe Doctor Faustus (United States: Dover Press, 1994)
 Simon Armitage The Last Days of Troy (London: Faber and Faber, 2014)
 Lily Cole quoted in Jonathan Yeo (https://www.jonathanyeo.com/lily-cole-as-helen-of-troy/)