The retrospective of Jonathan Yeo at Salford’s Lowry Centre highlights an artist who has mastered his art.
IT IS received wisdom within the art world that the portrait, as an art form, has long since had its day. A surprising conclusion given the towering reputation of Lucien Freud since his death and recent work produced by Kossoff and Auerbach.

However, even dropping these names into the conversation brings the suggestion that these painters simply represent the last generation of British painters who actually cared about the format.

Not so. There are a number of young artists who have chosen to continue experimenting with the form, notably Stuart Pearson Wright who is doing things with the portrait that indicate a potential for greatness. He is now joined by Jonathan Yeo whose retrospective “Portraits” at the Lowry Centre opened last month to widespread acclaim.

Many of his most famous subjects have been brought together in this new exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery. From Kevin Spacey, acting as Richard III; Damien Hirst, dressed incongruously in chemical protection suit; to Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Parkinson and Grayson Perry. The exhibition includes additional paintings, drawings and preparatory materials especially for The Lowry.

Despite his youth, he is 43, acclaim is nothing new for the artist. Painters who are routinely selected at an early age for the National Portrait Gallery and exhibit in some of the world’s most important commercial galleries rarely suffer from a lack of peer recognition.

But with Yeo it always seemed that the praise was a little muted. Yes, everyone knew he was a good artist, albeit self-taught, but was he, like his rival Pearson Wright, really destined for greatness?

He didn’t help his own cause by following his friend Damian Hirst’s into the murky arena of self-publicity, most notability with a series of collages of famous Americans made up entirely of the most shocking pornographic magazine cuttings.

The series was brilliant, if derivative, but the controversy surrounding it – the Daily Mail had a field day – tended to overshadow this. The best of these portraits, former President George W Bush, is represented in the retrospective and presents the viewer with the type of optical illusion that was pioneered by Bridget Riley.

Stand a few feat away and the collage, cleverly finished with acrylic, presents the viewer with a stunning view of a very powerful but vulnerable man, move up close and it is clear what the artist – the son of former Conservative minister Timothy Yeo – thinks of him. It isn’t much.

Yet the Bush portrait is not the thing that convinces about the artist’s talent. That job is done by his more conventional portraits – albeit conventional in the sense that he has taken the old Walter Sickert technique of leaving things unfinished to better focus the eye to a whole new level.

Yeo who famously took up painting – every modern artist, it seems must have an interesting story outside his paintings – while recovering from Hodgkin’s disease in his early 20s, is best known for work that includes a world weary Tony Blair, an iconic painting of Erin O’Connor and now familiar images of Prince Philip, and Dennis Hopper, some of which feature in this exhibition.

Yeo speaks intelligently about his work and paid fulsome tribute to the area in his opening address, citing the influence of Lowry in his work. Try as this critic did he could see no Lowry influence.

What he could see was an artist seeking to represent the inner truth of his subject, what they are really like, which since the renaissance has always been the job of the portrait painter – and in this he succeeds.

Seeing his work from various periods hanging in one exhibition one begins to grasp the speed and scale of his artistic journey, and the importance of portraiture. In the digital age, it may be the work of seconds to take self-portraits, but the camera can never capture (for want of a better word) the soul.

Yeo does so effortlessly. His portrait of Tony Blair at the end of his term in power catches a world-weary figure whose eyes are almost begging the viewer for understanding, while anyone who does not believe that Hirst, at heart, is a self-satisfied man with a large ego (part of what makes him a great artist) need merely stand and gaze upon Yeo’s enormous portrait.

This is an exhibition that proves pretty clearly that young Jonathan Yeo is not just a technically good painter but might one day be regarded as a great British painter. I can not recommend this exhibition enough.

The exhibition runs until June 29th.