Tom Leveritt in conversation with Peter James Field.
Thanks for speaking with us Tom. Please tell us a bit about your background and how you found yourself in the world of portrait painting?
I had a commission as an officer in a cavalry regiment, but after an unpleasant surprise aid-working in Bosnia during the war (Douglas Hurd refusing to allow the British army to protect civilians) I decided an army is only as moral as its leadership, and if there are Tories in charge, then it’s not for me — and I took up painting instead.
What’s your typical working day, and how many pictures do you tend to have on the go at any given time?
I have, I don’t know, 20 on the go? I feel like a rat in a maze and each one is a gambit at breaking out of the area I’m in. Then I break out - but only into another section of the maze. I just did this odd little study of glare which I think is a really interesting new direction. [Hayling Island, attached.]
Can you talk to us about one of your own pieces that holds a particularly special place for you - whether in career or personal terms?
I painted a portrait of my mother and uncles at my aunt Jenny’s wake, in Dallas, Texas, in 2003 - standing around holding styrofoam cups, bleakly contemplating the reality that life has to go on. That painting enabled me to break out of a garish coloured ghetto I’d been stuck in for a while. [attached]
Also could you pick out a particular piece by another artist that proved to be a formative influence on your own painting?
I bought a painting of Tai-Shan Schierenberg’s back in 1997, a portrait of his brother Fritz asleep. I was absolutely amazed by Tai’s painting at that time — his painting in general — somehow it entered straight into my nervous system. I don’t feel quite so strongly about it now, and I suspect he doesn’t either. Something in the world shifted.
Do you have a favourite museum/gallery?
I like the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid. It is, or at any rate was, a private collection, second only to the Royal Collection, so you don’t get sections of completely uninteresting medieval brooch-painting or whatever, that you get in public collections, which have to be all things to all people. There’s some really great second-tier stuff, that because they haven’t been reproduced to death, still have the freshness of discovery to them. [there’s a Degas on my insta feed from there.]
How have you been affected in this current lockdown, has it made you more or less productive?
Man I live in a field in Suffolk, everything’s completely the same, except without the suspicion that somewhere other people are having more fun.
Congratulations on getting into the BP Award a fourth time this year. Your painting turned out to be one of the most prescient in the show in its subject matter. How did it come about, and have you had much feedback on it since the show went live?
Thanks! I painted it in the run-up to the general election, which feels like it was oh, several decades ago now, back when we had a final chance to stop Brexit, save British farming, save British industry, and generally arrest the Tories’ decades-long assault on the entire concept of public service. But we, as a nation, f***** it. It was obvious that everyone with any power was going to collaborate to make Corbyn seem like a treacherous, terroristic, incompetent anti-semite, and they succeeded. So the painting was a sort of appeal, a rhetorical question from NHS workers to the electorate, as they watched them queueing up like turkeys voting for Christmas: are you f****** kidding me?
I was amazed to learn from your CV that you had great success with your first novel (I’m a frustrated writer). Is there another one in the pipeline? Do you see fiction writing and painting as completely separate, or is there any sense in which one can influence the other in your experience?
That’s very sweet! But I don’t think’s there’s another book coming. I think novels are a twentieth century art form, like ballet is a nineteenth century art form, not 100% comfortable outside their time. Few people have the time to read more than one novel a month, and a lot of successful novels aren’t so much novels as pre-screenplays. I figure you might as well cut out the middleman and aim for a Netflix series.
Fiction and painting aren’t completely separate, they’re both ways of enunciating what is presumably the same artistic voice - it’s just that, owing to time constraints people can consume a lot more paintings than they can novels! They can definitely influence each other... I think it works better when it’s paintings about books, like... everything by Delaroche, rather than books about paintings like, I dunno, The Goldfinch, which... y’know.
Are there are portrait painters working now whose work you’re particularly enjoying?
I’ve always admired Justin Mortimer and Diarmuid Kelley but I don’t suppose they would call themselves portrait painters exactly... I did portraits of them once, and also Andrew Festing too (who’s also amazing) as a sort of homage [attached], to reflect how I was trying to learn from them. I’m actually trying to diversify from a sole focus on portraiture, which in my case has sunk me in months-long difficulties in the past trying to capture a sufficiently strong likeness - and to elaborate my voice as a painter of everything else, that I can then fold back into portrait work. But it’s a case of reculer pour mieux sauter.
To any of the CBPP followers who may be aspiring painters themselves, is there any practical advice you might be able to share? Or perhaps a particular piece of kit you couldn’t be without?
I’d say don’t be afraid of glazing! You have to use both pigmentary and spectral colour. Also of using your fingers, rulers, brillo pads, you name it. Get the fundamentals of what you’re depicting right, worry about surface later. I spent years thinking that only brushes, and maybe a palette knife, were legit. That was... incorrect.
Thanks for sharing your time and expertise.
Peter James Field.
* Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed here by any individual or individuals are not necessarily the views shared by the CBPP and should not be thought of as such.