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Artist Valerie’s brush with royalty

22 March, 2018 — By John Gulliver

Painter Valerie Wiffen with sitter Vicky Joel and the portrait

IT was the exactness of Valerie Wiffen’s estima­tion that puzzled me. As she began to put her sitter at ease in a kind of master­class on Friday evening, the artist suddenly stated that a canvas had a “mortality” of 600 years.

Why 600 years? What sort of Godlike powers did the portrait painter have? She’d made the announcement at the start of her session of painting Vicky Joel at the Hamp­stead School of Art before an audience of students, relatives, friends and lovers of art.

But – as she explained to me later – she wasn’t referring to the essential artistic value of a piece of art. She meant that it has been proved that oil paint on a linen canvas has a life of not much more than 600 years – after that it starts to deteriorate quickly.

To make her point, she told me she once observed a mushroom growing near a famous painting by Turner at the Petworth gallery in Sussex.

She kept the audience enthralled with a running commentary on the tricks of the trade, along with a few humorous anecdotes. Then, towards the end of a near three-hour session, she referred to the time she painted a royal. Bound by a convention observed by all painters of the royals I have inter­viewed, Valerie wouldn’t tell me much except to say she had been commis­sioned by the Jewish Board of Deputies to paint Prince Philip who had allowed her a four-hour sitting. “And I cannot tell you anything about it – it wouldn’t be fair, would it?” she said.

To confirm a point made by another royal painter to me recently I asked the same question: “What kind of refresh­ments did you have?” She gave the same reply – “mineral water”.

The sitter, Vicky Joel, was able to take her por­trait back to her Hamp­stead home. She was chosen by the Hamp­stead School of Art because of its links with the Keats Library of which Vicky is a popular trustee since it began to be run by volunteers six years ago.

Since public libraries began to buckle under the economies of the austerity programme, volunteers have rallied to save them – but the beautiful Grade II-listed Keats Library is uniquely run by volun­teers, without any full-time staff. More than 7,000 people use it.

A new kind of social enterprise at its best!

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