Lara Feigel’s Gloucestershire home lies in a maze of narrow country roads, snaking for an eternity through high, dense verges. Driving there in September, I almost felt like I had embarked on a quest. Her house belongs to a quaint single-story row set far back from the road, with a garden path leading to the front door. The atmosphere was remote and bucolic: stepping out of my car, I was impressed by the silence, the absence of bustle and stress. According to Lara this place is conveniently situated between her partner’s home and her work.
Lara is a professor of modern literature and culture at King’s College London. Among her various books, it was Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing that really caught my attention. Having read Lessing’s The Golden Notebook previously, I found Lara’s interpretation of her work captivating.
It is strange to imagine Doris Lessing as a contemporary of my own straight-laced mother, who raised me under strict Calvinist values in the 1960s. My mother was totally selfless and devoted to her role as the carer of her family; a role assigned to her by society but also, I dare say, willingly embraced. Her experience was worlds apart from the freedom Lessing claimed, but then so was mine. I got married very young, before I could even think about multiple bed partners, or heaven forbid, bringing shame to my family by falling pregnant out of wedlock.
When I met Lara, I found she exuded a sense of focus and direction, speaking at a brisk pace. That said, she didn’t have a preference about where she wanted to pose. We tried a few options and decided on a very paintable leather library chair in a bright corner of the house. She was wearing a funky short leather skirt and leather boots that shone in the sunlight. We talked about her recently published book, about the clashing impulses of motherhood and vocation, and about the lengths women will go to for children, even before they are born (Lara conceived her own daughter through IVF).
Her extraordinary piercing eyes reminded me of the iconic photo by Larry McCurry, Afghan Girl, and I knew this was a feature I wanted to focus on. One of her feet was arranged in an interesting twist, though even as I drew it I knew the constraints of the canvas would sadly force me to crop this detail out.
I finished my first pass at Lara’s portrait in March, taking pleasure in rendering the various leather items. Leather is a joy to paint, on account of the abundant tones and hues that light can summon from its surface, not to mention the way it falls into tactile folds. Rudolf Slichter’s 1926 portrait of Bertolt Brecht is a favourite of mine, and an excellent example of how gorgeously a leather jacket can be painted.
My photo references were inadequate to finish Lara’s face, so I deferred this until her visit to my studio in June. During this second sitting, however, the lighting turned out to be a major obstacle. I tried with various lamps and windows to recreate Lara’s appearance from our first encounter, but in the end I had to start afresh on the face and make use of the available light.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of light for the painting or drawing of a face. The play of light is what imbues facial features with the drama and concreteness of a particular moment in time; the highlights that appear in the eyes, the bridge of the nose, the cheeks, chin and forehead are often the details that bring a portrait to life. When the light changes, the shapes and shadows on the face shift, as do the colour relationships, creating an entirely different image. Alice Neels’ skilful use of light in her portraits is in my view unsurpassed.
Looking at Lara’s portrait now, I am more intrigued than ever by her relationship to Doris Lessing. I find echoes of Lessing’s uncompromising desire for freedom – in matters sexual, creative, and more – in Lara’s ambition and independence. But I sense that Lara is also sensitive to the joys and responsibilities of motherhood. The need to balance these different aspects of self-actualisation is one that resonates deeply with me.