Wednesday 22 January 2014

Capturing the King's Face: An Interview with Laurie Harris, the artist behind a new portrait of Richard III.

 My new book, "Richard III: The Road to Leicester," features a fascinating new interpretation of the King by an exciting young artist, Laurie Harris. I spoke to Laurie about the way he approached the portrait, his thoughts about the man and his influences:


How did you research the portrait?

Perhaps the core objective I set myself for this new portrait of Richard III was to produce a recognisably human figure we can all, to some extent, connect with. This involved stripping back some layers of royalty and title, and presenting an altogether plainer vision which lends itself to graphite and charcoal. The tonal range cleaves closer together and unifies the image in its ordinariness and essence, which helps to divest some of the grandeur of Richard’s position. This is an aspect I thought lacking in other pictures I have seen of Richard III, which contrast the figure more starkly against his robes and riches. Most keenly was this brought to my attention when I visited London to observe the two anonymously authored 15th/16th Century colour portraits housed in the National Portrait Gallery. Richard is depicted with a pained expression (in fact not unlike the expression in my portrait), dressed in all his finery, and ambiguously fingering his ring. (Students of semiotics could have a field day!) To me these paid close attention to the dynamic of and contrast between the man and the title, thereby manifesting a political intention, which I can say did not intentionally factor in to my designs. Aesthetically I took much greater interest in capturing the scientific reality of Richard – that is, closely analysing the recent reconstruction of his face put together by a team at Leicester University using the craniometry of his recently unearthed skull. The bust they produced was a revelation but, to my eyes at least, a little stale and lacking vitality. So I went about trying to inject some emotion, some humanity and some life, as better identified in the earlier portraits. Thus, the combination of a scientific foundation and a human interest sensibility perhaps makes my portrait a very contemporary production.


What impressions did you draw of Richard and how did you convey them in the drawing?

I was aware of some of the controversy surrounding Richard III. Certainly this is a man whose reputation and legacy remains fluid and indefinite, and it is perhaps that contestation and dispute that account for his endurance in the public imagination. Shakespeare’s ‘Crookback’ characterisation of course has done much to guide public perception through the ages, but the  posthumous play seems likely part of a Tudor propaganda offensive used to discredit Richard and distort or embellish real truths. The question of whether the ‘disappeared’ Princes in the tower, Richard’s two nephews, were executed by Richard remains a pertinent one. To my mind, any ruler seeks to legitimate his or her right to rule whether through ancestry, ritual, myth-making, or plain bloodshed, so the question I posed myself was how ruthless was this man’s desire to rule? Would he kill his nephews without feeling? Would he kill them with profound conflict? Would he kill them at all? To that extent I weighed down more sympathetically on Richard. I wanted to eke out something of the man, and thus rather suggest the crown through the man. In that sense I tried to convey something of the human impact of Kingship, such as those revealed by the fate of his nephews. To this extent I suppose I am intimating a certain humanity and feeling to Richard, which perhaps courts as much controversy as befits the figure.


What are your influences as an artist?

When I was young my parents read a story to me called ‘Christopher and the Dream Dragon’, written by Allen Morgan and illustrated by Brenda Clark. The pictures were greyscale and the story of a boy who has to recover a coin from the dragon’s golden hoard nestled away amongst the clouds really shook my imagination. Perhaps I can say that since that point, fantasies, myths, fairy tales and high adventures (culturally coloured throughout the world) have been my home away from home. Pictures, as words, are dialogical. And like words they are both aesthetic and conceptual. In this way pictures are the very fabric of storytelling. Certainly I like to see the pictures I create as telling or being a part of some kind of story, however small and inconsequential. My intention is for them to exist as a moment caught in a long timeline of a past and future in a real or abstracted world. Therein lies the narrative possibility. So when I think about influences, I am certainly thinking as much about stories as I am about art. These influences spread across multiple mediums including literature, film, documentaries, music, and so on. Particularly I would like to mention the work of Japanese animation house, Studio Ghibli, whose films continue to inspire me both through their bewitching visuals and the power, emotion, and brio of their storytelling. I share with them a wonder and reverence of both subtle and outlandish fantasy, and remain indebted to them in that respect. A few other notable visionaries that have fired my ambition and fed my imagination are the fairy tale artist and old favourite, Arthur Rackham, father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien and his artists Alan Lee and John Howe, and the lyrical and bittersweet fantasies of Japanese author Osamu Dazai.

What are your future plans?

Reflexivity is a great asset to an artist (and indeed perhaps a curse!). Among critics of my picture, I am perhaps king (pun vaguely intended) – although perhaps that will change once this portrait is in print! But that self-criticism motivates me to improve with each picture, and demands each picture pushes my ability, both technically and methodologically. In short, I still have everything to learn, and this is just the beginning. I hope that getting my work out there might increase the possibility of producing more work for other projects, and open other pathways and opportunities that allow me to improve my skills and better articulate my ideas. Specifically I would like to illustrate children’s books, or even develop a story from scratch and run with that, with the ambition both of strengthening my portfolio and producing ever-more professional, atmospheric and imaginative work.

You can see Laurie's work at

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