The National Portrait Gallery in London and the BBC unveiled their first joint painted portrait commission – of Falklands War veteran Simon Weston by artist Nicky Philipps. Weston was voted last September by viewers of BBC One’s The One Show as the public figure who most deserved to have his picture displayed at the National Portrait Gallery.
The finished portrait goes on display at the gallery for the first time on Thursday 20 March and to coincide with the launch of the broadcast in April of a major BBC ONE behind-the-scenes television documentary presented by Fiona Bruce, giving unprecedented access to the Gallery’s portrait commissioning process.
The large full-length painting in oil (five feet by three) shows Weston at the artist’s studio holding his medals and standing behind a chair on which is placed a Welsh Guards cap, symbolic of those lost in the bombing of Sir Galahad. His own cap was destroyed in battle. Artist Nicky Philipps wanted a clear and simple composition that allowed the strong character of the sitter to emerge, and with a focus on his face and hands. By featuring the cap and medals, including his OBE, she wanted to reflect both his military career and his work for charity – raising millions of pounds for good causes.
‘I felt it was important to show Simon’s hands’, says Nicky Philipps, ‘they were badly burned but he still has the use of them, and I wanted to show him holding his medals. The bright pinkish-red of the OBE in Simon’s hands, draped over the chair, brings a flash of colour to the lower half of the picture which I feel is aesthetically satisfying’.
This portrait came about through The People’s Portrait, a unique collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and the BBC. Viewers of BBC One’s The One Show were asked to vote for a sitter for a portrait to become part of the Gallery’s Collection. Chosen from a shortlist of 12 individuals with very different achievements, Weston was announced as the winner in September 2013.
The one-off BBC One documentary The People’s Portrait follows the process of painting the portrait and at the same time uncovers the extraordinary story of Simon Weston.
As Nicky and Simon get to know each other the portrait takes shape. As she paints, Nicky captures Simon’s larger than life character, his positivity and his sense of humor. Throughout the program Simon doesn’t look at the painting in progress so that he can see it for the very first time when it is unveiled.
Simon Weston was born in Caerphilly and joined the Welsh Guards in 1978, aged sixteen. In 1982 he was aboard RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Sir Galahad in Port Pleasant in the Falkland Islands when it came under fire during the Bluff Cove air attacks. Of his platoon, 22 members lost their lives, and Weston suffered 46% burns to his body and face. He underwent more than 70 operations to reconstruct his face, and credits his family and old regiment with helping him overcome extreme psychological trauma. He became a popular media personality, and is a writer and patron of a number of charities supporting people living with disfigurements, including the Healing Foundation.
Artist Nicky Philipps, who was selected by a joint Gallery and BBC panel, has exhibited in the BP Portrait Award several times and was commissioned by the Gallery to paint Prince William and Prince Harry in 2009. Growing up within an artistic family and with the influence of the Graham Sutherland Gallery, then located at her family home, Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire, Philipps trained at the City & Guilds and the Cecil-Graves Atelier in Florence. She returned to London in the late 1980s, where she has built a successful career as a portrait and still life painter. Her varied commissions have included a conversation piece depicting the novelist Ken Follett surrounded by characters from his novels; two ex-Governors of the Bank of England; and last year she was approached by Royal Mail to paint a portrait of HM The Queen for one of the Coronation Jubilee stamps, the first time the organisation had commissioned a painting.
Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘The portrait serves as a powerful reminder of the reality of warfare and a tribute to Weston’s courage’.
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘Nicky Philipps has created a powerful portrait of Simon Weston as a strong and inspiring character. I am delighted that through a successful collaboration with the BBC we can reveal more about the highly skilled process of producing a contemporary painted portrait.’