Featured artist: Alexander Newley

Artist Alexander Newley is well regarded for his portrait painting practice and a catalogue of work which includes famed depictions of Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Christopher Reeve, among other notable public figures. He recently lent his talents to the production of the film Effie Gray, about the complicated love triangle between art critic John Ruskin, his teenage bride Euphemia (played by Dakota Fanning), and the painter John Everett Millais.

We sat down with Newley to discuss the expressive dimensions of his work, the person he would love to paint and his favourite Winsor & Newton products.

“I am fascinated by people and always have been,” he says. “I’m amazed by how disinterested other people are in each other.” This inquisitiveness fuels Newley’s portrait painting practice. His painting of Sir Nigel Hawthorne in character as George III (1993) was chosen by the English National Theatre as the promotional image for its touring production of The Madness of George III. The full-length, standing version of this portrait is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

With no formal training, Newley received his first portrait commission at 18. His development as an artist has been influenced by a number of painters, including Rembrandt and the German Expressionists. He considers John Singer Sargent to have a technical facility that puts him in a league of his own.

Born in New York City, his formative years as a painter were spent at Lyme Regis in Dorset, and he considers himself a British artist. Since returning to New York in 1994, he has painted many artists associated with Hollywood, including film directors Oliver Stone and Billy Wilder (both 1995).

His triple portrait of Christopher Reeve (2004) was completed only months before the actor and activist’s death.

His work

Newley defines his artistic mission as “radical classicism”, an attempt to combine the qualities of classical technique with contemporary subject matter. He loves to experiment with techniques and materials and has worked using pastels, acrylic, oil and paint sticks.

Travelling around the world to meet his commission schedule, Newley would love his subjects to sit for him over long periods and several sessions. But many of his busy clients do not have the time to do so, and he has had, by necessity, to work from photographs. He is inquisitive and asks lots of questions of his subjects to uncover their personalities. ‘I won’t accept commissions from people I don’t find in some way interesting,” he says.

Newley seems to gravitate toward men who have been wronged or feel otherwise estranged from society. An important early painting was of the film director Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot). Wilder felt aggrieved at being ignored by Hollywood throughout the 1980s despite his hugely successful back catalogue. Newley asked his mother, the actress Joan Collins, for Wilder’s phone number; to his surprise, the call was answered by the great man himself. The portrait sitting took place over three sessions, all conducted in complete silence. Wilder also viewed the finished portrait without a word. Later, his wife told Newley that he had loved the painting – he just didn’t like himself very much.

Aside from portrait commissions, Newley makes a range of studio-based paintings, including still lifes, cityscapes and imaginary compositions for gallery exhibitions.

Current direction

As a teenager, Newley would constantly doodle self-portraits and imaginary old men with deeply lined and heavily shadowed faces. He believes he understood the expressive potential of the face from watching his father, the actor and singer Tony Newley, performing in public. “My father had these huge eyebrows, and it was amazing as a child watching him project particular emotions right to the back of a room,” he says.

His ideal subject

“I’m fascinated by writers,” Newley says. He believes the tradition of the theatrical portrait needs revisiting and hopes for the opportunity to paint a great actor in a great role, along the lines of Derek Jacobi as King Lear.

Newley’s favourite Winsor & Newton colours

Indian Yellow’s “incredible warmth and matchless glazing effects” make it Newley’s favourite colour in the Artists’ Oil Colour range. “It can literally change the feeling of a painting from sad to sunny,” he says. “And it makes a wonderful deep green when mixed with black.” He also uses products from Winsor & Newton’s Professional Acrylic range.