Sacha Llewellyn

It was exciting to learn that Sacha Llewellyn had agreed to be part of this project. Not only is she a respected art historian, she also lives in Paris, so meeting and drawing her would give me an excuse to visit the City of Light. 

Paris might be my favourite city to spend time in. I like to get around on foot, allowing me to stumble across unexpected architectural details, interesting facades, hidden galleries and quaint cafes. Then again I’m equally happy in the tranquillity of the Luxembourg gardens, where I can sit and watch the passers-by for hours. That’s to say nothing of the numerous museums with their often unparalleled exhibitions. And so, on December 1st, during a small window between Covid lockdowns, I took the Eurostar to meet Sacha.

Sacha is a British art historian, curator and author, specialising in British women artists between the wars. She received the William MB Berger prize in 2017 for her work on the painter Winifred Knights, and has been long-listed ten times for the Berger Art History prize. I am the proud owner of several books edited by Sacha, including a wonderful collection of self-portraits, Portrait of an Artist,and 50-50: 50 Works by 50 British Women Artists 1900 to 1950.

She is also, I discovered, very affable, and far too modest for someone with such a detailed knowledge of her subject. Her apartment is almost a museum unto itself, housing her vast collection of historic works by women (how I love to enter rooms densely hung with art!). Through a set of French doors, a balcony offered views of a typical Parisian suburb, packed with shuttered windows and attic dormers. 

Sacha talked me through her collection, expressing her special affinity for Winifred Knights. It was a pleasure to see more of Knights’ meticulously painted work up close, having long admired her painting The Deluge in Tate Britain. I learned that Sacha collaborates regularly with her husband Paul Liss, curating exhibitions accompanied by her scholarly catalogues. They only recently moved to Paris after living in the French countryside for many years raising their family.

For the drawing, Sacha chose to sit on an armchair with an interesting semi-circular frame, lit from behind by the French door. Despite the wintry conditions, the light coming through the glass enveloped her and glowed beautifully on the floorboards. This produced a compelling contra jour effect, a dramatic play of colour and shadow around her figure and especially on her velvet trousers. The pose reminded me of Felice Casorati’s 1922 portrait of Silvana Cenni, where a similar composition and use of lighting can be seen.

I finished two drawings, remarking to Sacha how I enjoyed the way her feet were turned in. Fitting this detail into the canvas, I realised, would require cropping her head at the top. Sasha’s exquisite earrings and brooch would most certainly be included too.

Before leaving Paris, I took the opportunity to visit the Georg Baselitz and Georgia O’Keeffe shows at the Pompidou centre. I was once again inspired by how O’Keeffe never let age detract from her fierce artistic independence. One of her statements resonated with me too, a declaration of art’s ability to transcend the limitations of life: “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

In February I was back in the studio with Sacha’s portrait drawn on the canvas in blue, against an acrylic undercoat. I liked the horizontal divisions breaking the background into thirds, contrasting with her vertical figure in the foreground. It made for a sharp geometric composition. I did my best to capture the softness of the light swelling around her figure and across the floor, an integral part of the apartment’s atmosphere. As expected Sacha’s head got cropped, but the feet fitted in.

With my deadline approaching, I was grateful when Sacha told me she could make it to the UK for another sitting. She came in September, almost a year after our first meeting in Paris. It was a lively session, our conversation flowing through a whole range of subjects, including the tale of Sacha’s husband proposing to her a day after they met. We also discussed her thrilling new office in the Marais, her blog RAW (Rediscovering Art by Women) and her love for exquisite earrings. Before we knew it she had to rush to King’s Cross to catch the last train back to Paris. 

I got what I needed from the sitting though, taking time to refine the light and shadows on Sacha’s face. I’m not sure if Sacha liked the way I portrayed her with a sideways glance – I think she would preferred something more confident and assertive – but her contemplative expression is one of my favourite aspects of this portrait, conveying the presence of a rich inner life.

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