It was with great anticipation that I picked up the phone to talk to the Hon. Jim Prentice, Alberta’s 16th Premier, about how we might work together to create his official portrait. The Right Hon. Kim Campbell, Canada’s former Prime Minister, had recommended me to him, kindly saying I had helped make sitting for her official Parliamentary portrait an enjoyable experience and that the painting had more than fulfilled her expectations. We talked about how the sittings might work, what his hopes for his portrait were (simple, contemporary, and looking towards the future), and agreed he would come to my studio in autumn.
I hung up feeling elated, really looking forward to spending time with this fascinating man. Sadly, it was not to be. The news of his tragic death in a plane crash followed all too soon.
As his family struggled to deal with their appalling loss, the Government let me know that both they and the family wished to honour Mr. Prentice’s wishes and have me paint the portrait as we had discussed. They would supply photographs and support my liaising with the family.
People in public life are photographed constantly. At functions, rallies, making speeches, shaking hands, waving to crowds and so on. These photographs are an important part of the public record, but they are rarely taken with the needs of a portrait painter in mind. There were a few I thought I could work with if I perhaps used a body double to help establish a pose and worked carefully to create a suitable setting. Using these, I made 3 entirely different loose compositional sketches incorporating different backgrounds and props. These sketches are not intended to be true likenesses but to begin a dialogue with the family.
Then a new photograph came to light, a shot taken at a family event, Mr. Prentice in a red check shirt gazing into the distance, seen slightly from below. It was just a head and collar shot, but as soon as I saw it I could see how it could work. Imagining him looking off into the future, I saw him leant on the impressive marble balustrade I had noticed when I visited the Alberta Legislature for the unveiling of my portrait of Col. (ret’d) Lt. Governor Don Ethell, with the gleaming marble walls behind him, throwing him into sharp focus.
I built up a pile of books on the kitchen table and laid a plank across them to create my balustrade and posed a model, of similar build to Mr. Prentice, in a dark suit, lighting the setup carefully to match the head shot I’d chosen and then created a new charcoal sketch, combining all of these elements. The family caught the vision from the sketch and I set to bringing it to life on linen.
I knew it had worked when Mr. Prentice’s sister Jo-Anne visited my studio. She looked at it with tears in her eyes and said “That’s Jim”. Happily the rest of the family agreed.
It was truly moving for me to attend the unveiling on the 4th of February and hear Mrs. Prentice say she liked the painting, how pleased she is about what it captures about her husband, and to say it with such feeling. I had wanted to get it right for her and her daughters and they were so kind it letting me see that I did.
The ceremony opened with a haunting song from Chief Tony Alexis, who had worked with Mr. Prentice closely on indigenous issues.
As the last echoes of the song died away, it was followed by heartfelt tributes from Her Hon. the Lt. Governor of Alberta, Premier Rachael Notley, Leader of the Official Opposition and Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel.
Mrs. Karen Prentice closed with a moving tribute to her husband and her hope that his portrait might inspire those children who will see it over future years to dare to imagine that one day, perhaps, they might be a future Premier.