June Mendoza - Portrait Artist

'Your Face In Her Hands' - Published in Country Life magazine 27th Feb 2013

June Mendoza 2013

The prolific portraitist on her method, discretion and being firm with the subject

Photograph by John Millar

Mark Elder's in there somewhere,' says June Mendoza, gesturing to a pile of canvases in the corner of her attic studio in Wimbledon, as if the eminent conductor were trapped underneath them. If so, he would find himself squashed between several other celebrated musicians - Miss Mendoza pulls out portraits of the cellist Steven Isserlis and the baritone Sir Thomas Allen, together with a couple of university vice chancellors, the historian David Starkey and the Paralympian David Weir.

Probably the busiest, as well as the best known portrait painter working in Britain today, Miss Mendoza usually has about six paintings under way at any one time - over the past 12 years, she has fitted 50 Chelsea Pensioners into her schedule - the most urgent at present being three for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters' annual exhibition in May. 'One is of the sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green, who did that enormous horse's head at Marble Arch. I'm painting him with a horse's head and the canvas is about 20ft wide - he's up a ladder.' She needs only half an hour to finish it, but has just been told that she can't get an appointment for another 10 days. 'Oh, I'm spitting chips.'

It's difficult to imagine how such a slight, gamine figure can manage not only the physical demands of such enormous canvases, but also the frantic pace of work she sets herself, yet Miss Mendoza laughs off my surprise. As she explains, she began painting as a teenager in 1940s Australia and hasn't stopped since.

Her dedication to her art has never faltered despite the demands of marriage to a Shell executive, worldwide travel - including postings in the Philippines and Australia - and raising four children.

She comes from a theatrical family and her combination of neat elegance and tough energy makes it easy to imagine her as an actress or dance - indeed, she had a brief career on the stage.

'Both my parents were professional musicians working in the theatre - opera and ballet, Gilbert and Sullivan, revues and so on. My father was a violinist, my mother, Dot Mendoza, a pianist. They split up when I was six and I took my mother's name. I was a backstage, solitary child and I just drew. By the time I was about 12, it was apparent I had something a little extra, but there was never a point when I thought I'd be an artist - I just never thought of doing anything else.'

Although she attended a couple of art schools - 'I was too young and silly to listen to what they had to teach me' - her approach is largely instinctive. From the start, she drew portraits. 'I did my schoolmates and people sat for me. I soon learned I could barter drawings for whatever I needed. My gift, my starting point, was an ability to get a likeness, but that no more makes an artist than perfect pitch makes a musician - it's an innate ability.'

When I ask if her theatrical upbringing influences the way she choreographs large numbers of people in her famous group portraits - most notably, the depiction of 440 members of the House of Commons on a single canvas in 1986-87 - she shakes her head. 'I can't explain how I do it. It was a bit like making a loose cover for that sofa there. I'd never done one before, but, somehow, I just knew how to go about it.'

So how does she go about it? 'When I start on a portrait, I think who is this person, what is their body like and what shapes do they make with it?' She works straight onto the canvas, without preliminary drawings and makes only minimal use of photography. 'Photos are useful if I've got a very limited time such as when I'm painting one of the royals. (The Queen has sat for her five times). They can't give you much time, rightly, as they're painted so often and the painting might be twice the size of a normal portrait, so I'll use photos, but it's a matter of bluff and catch-up.'

The choice of dress, accessories and background is a subject for negotiation, but only up to a point. 'I have to be firm when something just won't paint, like a dress with a beautiful pattern that won't translate in terms of paint unless I paint a photograph of it.' Does that imply that women are more difficult than men? 'No, I wouldn't say there's any difference. I'm just looking at the individual. They're all vulnerable; they're all at my mercy.'

Miss Mendoza's warm charm disguises a steely assurance about her role as an artist. 'The sitter will judge the portrait according to whether it's a likeness, but they won't know why or how it came off as a work of art - how should they? That's up to me.' She encourages her sitters to look at the canvas as it develops: 'I like them to work with me all the way through and to see it at every stage. They're amazed by the colour and the way it builds up, so it gets to the point that, when it's finished, they don't just see a portrait, they see a painting. It's more satisfying for both of us.'

It's almost easier to list the people in British public life that Miss Mendoza hasn't painted than those she has and her career has also had an international dimension: among the portraits she is proudest of are those of the former presidents of the Philippines and Iceland, Corazon Aquino and Vigdis Finnbogadottir respectively.

However, the record of these encounters will only ever be the paintings themselves. 'People are always saying I should write a memoir, but I haven't got a book in me. I spend a lot of time with a sitter and have long, intimate conversations, but it's absolutely understood that I don't repeat any of it.' She laughs: 'It's the code of the portrait painter, if you like.' Michael Hall

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