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Clement's Corner: The Portrait

So why did the world-famous tenor choose an almost-unknown artist to paint his portrait? Owen Clement tells another gripping tale. For more of Owen's imaginative stories click on Clement's Corner in the menu on this page.

Nervous and slightly apprehensive I wandered around my studio checking that all was ready. I’d had to rush out the day before to buy more paints to make sure I had a full range of colours on hand. I also ensured that I had enough rags and rinsing vessels. One can never have enough of them, in my opinion.

I swept and cleaned the studio before placing a throne-like chair on a dais for the sitter. No important personage, I believe, is portrayed viewed from above, especially someone like Winston Parry, an internationally renowned tenor. I tested the hired studio lighting using Peter Goldsworthy as my model. Peter’s gallery exhibits and sells my artwork exclusively. He had used his business skills to my great advantage by arranging for me to do the portrait.

I wondered why I, a relatively unknown, especially in the field of portraiture, had been chosen, and been offered such a high fee. Apart from doing one of my mother for which I won a regional award, all my other paintings were either figurative or abstract works.

It was only later that I speculated on his real reason for my being chosen.

I had warned my mother not to disturb me with cups of tea or any other excuse, as I only had ten two-hour sessions with a very important client as my subject. I intentionally did not say who, as once being an opera singer herself, I did not want her to know that it was Winston Parry.

My client drove up in his silver Mercedes to my studio which is situated at the bottom of the back yard. He was casually though expensively dressed and greeted me like an old friend.

I always have music playing when I work. I find it sets the mood. I use sombre music for darker themes or a Mozart Divertimenti for example, for lighter or sunnier subjects. As he was to sit patiently while I worked, I invited him to make a selection before we began. He declined, preferring instead to chat.

I was intrigued when during his first session he made me virtually recount my life story. He discovered that I was an only child, that both my parents had once been opera singers, that I was self-taught, that I was twenty four years old and that I still lived with my widowed mother.

When I asked him why I was chosen, an unknown, when he could have had any celebrated portrait painter, he merely said that had wanted a young unknown artist. He also admitted to owning some of my ‘youthful vibrant paintings that filled his home with warmth and colour’, as he put it. He liked the way I always used a full palette, not like many other painters who kept their selection to a minimum.

“You know my boy”, he said,” I have found that because of the different light in your country you Australians give a healthier more positive aspect to your work”.

He never once wanted to view the portrait in progress. When I invited him to do so, he said,” I will never perform unless I am both fully rehearsed and have done all my preliminary exercises. I will look at the work when you say it is complete and not before. Mind you”, he continued,”all creative people never really see their work as finished, be they writers, composers or artists. The project is ended when the creator decides to stop. Am I right?''

I nodded in acknowledgment.

He behaved completely contrary to the myth of egocentric and arrogant opera stars. When I asked for an extra sitting, as we had spent so much time having long relaxed breaks, he happily agreed.

He arrived on his final day with a basket of crusty rolls, an assortment of gourmet cheeses and a bottle of champagne “to celebrate the unveiling”, he said. Taking the basket from him I set it down and led him to a spot ten feet from the easel and threw back the covering cloth. He beckoned me to stand by him and putting his arm around my shoulders said, “I have never seen anything before that has thrilled me more. It will always be one of my most treasured possessions.''

Elated, I promised to deliver it in a few weeks’ time as the paint had to be thoroughly dry and it would still need a coat of varnish to protect it.

We ate our celebratory lunch and he drove off waving until he was out of sight.

I raced over to the house to give my mother the news of whom I had painted and of the high payment I was to receive. She reacted by pursing her lips and saying nothing. I decided that I had hurt her feelings by denying her the privilege of meeting one of her idols.

Electing to deal with her later I drove to the gallery to let Peter know that the painting had been completed and that Mr Parry was overjoyed with the result. He insisted on me driving him straight back to the studio to view the finished portrait. After which, he said, we would return and complete the paperwork for the sale.

I led him straight to the painting. You cannot imagine the shock we both felt when we saw that it had been slashed into shreds. I wanted to kill the maniac who had done this crazy thing. I screamed in a rage as I stormed around the studio. Peter merely stood dumbstruck.

My mother arrived at that moment.

“Look, mother, look what some bastard has done.”

Breathing deeply she glared at me her face a picture of absolute fury.

I blinked at her in absolute amazement, “You did this?” I yelled, “For God’s sake why?”

Without saying a word with tears flowing down her cheeks she spun around and stalked out.

Peter and I looked at each in stunned silence for some time until I finally managed to utter with a sigh, “You’ll have to tell him Peter.''

“But what if he asks how and why?”

“I don’t think you need bother about that,'' I said as I took down the remnants of the painting,”I’m sure he’ll know.''

© Clement 2006


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