Introduction

IN BRIEF: PAUL BENNEY

Benney has for the past three decades produced a distinctive and singular body of work in both the U.S. and U.K. and is represented in public and private collections around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery, Australia, The National Portrait Gallery, London, as well as prominent private and corporate collections such as the Eli Broad Foundation, AIG Houston and Standard Life, UK.

Benney has twice won the public choice award in the BP Portrait Award and has been short listed on two occasions. In 2013 he was invited to be one of the judges for the Threadneedle prize at the Mall Galleries.

A key member of the Neo-Expressionist group of the early 80’s in New York’s East Village, Benney became known for his depictions of stygian themes and dark nights of the soul. Also one of the country’s leading portrait artists, he has painted many prominent cultural and political figures.

TEXT FOR ‘JUST LOOKING’ BY HONOR CLERK

“If anyone had told the young Paul Benney that he would be one of the most successful ­portrait painters of his generation, he would probably have been dismayed to be branded with a label he held in deep suspicion.  Even now there are admirers who regard him in very different terms, but as one looks back with the easy advantage of hindsight, it seems entirely consistent both with his integrity as a painter and with his artistic inheritance that his success with portraiture should go hand in hand with the startling energy of his imaginative work.

The son of a celebrated goldsmith, Gerald Benney, Paul Benney is the grandson of the early 20th century British impressionist, Sallis Benney, an artist who in 1914 at the age of 18 found himself, by default, Principal of Hull School of Art.  His long and distinguished career as a teacher was mostly spent at Brighton College of Art; and though his grandson only remembers him as a remote Edwardian figure, a dandy in the mode of Sir William Nicholson, Sallis Benney seems to have passed on to Paul much of his own prodigal gift. Paul, however, credits an early training in silver and goldsmithing, and his father’s rigorous and disciplined approach to the creative process, as a more direct influence on his efforts to harness the mystery of transforming raw material into objects of beauty.
So apparent was his facility, in fact, that Benney himself regarded it with caution at school, ignored the expected path of art ­college and only exploited his pencil to draw portraits of restauranteurs on his extensive travels in India and the East as payment in kind for meals.  Holding at bay the obvious career as an artist, Benney worked as a ­carpenter and as a musician before moving to Toulouse, where a trompe l’oeil panel he painted in the cramped quarters of his red light district flat to cheer up a dismayed girlfriend gave him a first glimpse of the power of his brush to transform his life.

For Benney this represented a turning point, and in 1982 he went to New York for three weeks, stayed for six years and finally began his wilfully postponed career. […]

In these heady years of international acclaim, portraiture had played no part; but on returning to England, the successful commission of an official portrait of Anthony Quick, the headmaster of Bradfield College posed something of a dilemma. In New York terms, the descent from the intellectually approved world of neo-expressionism to that of commissioned portraiture represented a sell-out; but while in Britain such distinctions may have been felt in general terms, the work of artists such as Lucian Freud still gave the genre a credibility and integrity to which Benney could respond.

The result was something of a split personality, but if he was careful not to mention his portrait painting when in America, in practice Benney was already simultaneously developing his career along two fronts.  In Britain his portrait practice grew rapidly by word of mouth, and two important early portraits of Lord Ashburton and Sir Martin Jacomb, bankers with extensive contacts both in business and art ­circles, led a string of further sitters to his door.

By now Benney’s permanent home was in Britain, and as portraiture began to move from the margins to the centre stage of his oeuvre, his understanding of its possibilities matured.  Initially he might have regarded the achievement of likeness as little more than a bankable skill; but as he began to see himself as part of a long and distinguished tradition, the machinery of his imaginative work – the formal, spatial and tonal qualities – was not only harnessed to the full but enriched by the inevitably collaborative nature of portraiture.
In this context it is perhaps worth rehearsing Benney’s working method. He starts a portrait by sketching the head, jotting down initial responses. His sitters usually come to his ­studio […]. He Encourages them to move around the space, waiting until they locate themselves naturally in a place and pose that he can convey on canvas.

This first meeting is about understanding the nature of the collaboration, of the commitment of time and energy required to ensure a success – Benney reckons on eight to ten sittings of two hours each.  The externals are of little importance to him – the suit and tie so dreaded by many portrait artists hold no fears – the inner life is all.  Physical likeness is quickly established, a framework within which to develop the nuances of character gleaned from many hours of intimate contact. There then comes, he says, a moment in every good portrait when the painting starts to speak to him, when the hard graft of observation is complete and the internal logic of the work takes over, a moment when the obvious imperatives of portraiture are satisfied and the fruits of the by now established relationship between artist and sitter are coaxed to the surface.”

For a complete copy of  Honor Clerk’s text please contact the studio directly.