What do you want to be when you grow up?
An engine driver. Everyone wanted to be an engine driver. Back then, we had steam trains and if you’d ever seen a steam train you’d want to drive one too. Diesels’, when they replaced steam, just didn’t cut it and my ambitions shifted to naval hero, England goal keeper, explorer, and then, post-Beatles, rock star and romantic poet. All along I was drawing these fantasies, and my real skill was staring me in the face, but drawing was just something I did, like a nervous habit, it didn’t occur to me it could be an ambition. And then I saw Rembrandt.
I was 15, visiting the National Gallery with my parents, and we walked into the room featuring the Dutch Master. There was his extraordinary self-portrait, aged 63, the resigned yet defiant face looking at itself for signs of affirmation, for the memory of all he had been, yet also looking at me- the viewer- and challenging me to know him and to attempt to make something that lived out of paint.
There too, was Old Man in an Armchair, a care-worn, balding, white-bearded figure with his head resting on one hand, painted in deft, bold, masterful strokes. I looked at the portrait and saw the man my father would become as he aged, and thought, that’s what I want to do, I want to paint, I want to be able to paint my Dad like that when becomes that man. It was an epiphany. A certainty was born in me that somehow, someday, I would paint portraits. I knew finally, in that moment, what I really wanted to do when I grew up.
Of course, I didn’t grow up to be Rembrandt- part of growing up is the realization that no one grows up to be someone else, you can only grow into yourself and make the best of what you have been given, but the idea that I might make people that have life in them, people you might want to know, out of paint has been my sustaining vision, as it was his. And I have discovered, as he did, that this life isn’t always easy, that there are disappointments as well as wonderful highs in the life of an artist , that each day brings fresh challenges and new discoveries.