A paint-splattered guitar lies in the corner of Brendan Kelly’s studio in The Art Academy, an independent, not-for-profit art school near London Bridge. He hasn’t played much recently—business has been good, with quite a few commissions coming in.
He is also one of the Academy’s “artists in residence” and coordinates its drawing course. He enjoys teaching: “It’s really rewarding to pass on information and see students start producing stuff.” Brendan is also Honorary Treasurer and the youngest current member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters: “I prefer to see it not as a traditional society but as something that brings up stuff from beneath, to encourage younger painters.”
Currently Brendan is working on portraits of two senior British army personnel. The first is of General Sir David Richards, the overall commander of international forces in southern Afghanistan from July 2006 until February 2007, and recently made Chief of the General Staff of the British Army.
The second portrait is of General Sir Michael Jackson, former Chief of the General Staff. Brendan has filmed himself painting the Jackson portrait “to show the process.” He intends to put the film onto his site, through which he receives all his commissions and which enables him to bypass agents. “You get commissioned on what you have done before,” he says. “But it’s important to do different things, to have a break.”
For most of 2007 and 2008 Brendan was working on The Herat Room, a large-scale portrait commissioned in late 2006 of all the NATO Generals based in Kabul. Its dark, controversial subject and imposing scale were challenging: “Painting The Herat Room was really, really difficult,” he admits.
Fish and chips
Born in Edinburgh in 1970, Brendan’s father owned a kipper factory. Nowadays he finds the smell of fish unappealing.
He has more of an Ampleforth than Scottish accent, having been educated at the Yorkshire school: “They had recently built a large art facility. I didn’t need to take the entrance exam as they were pleased to have an artist.” He showed precocious skills as a teenager and allegedly achieved the highest ever mark for O-level Art and Design.
He applied to the Slade but was rejected: “They disqualified me from the application process because my portfolio had far to many pictures in it—hundreds of drawings, in fact—and they had a weight or limit or something for each applicant’s portfolio, which I had exceeded by a long way. So they called up my school and asked me to take it away.”
Instead he went to Camberwell for a year and then re-applied to the Slade. This time he was successful, “with a much smaller amount of work, about 30 drawings and one painting.” After Slade he spent a year at the Athens School of Fine Art on a scholarship award.
He won several prizes early in his career, including the Student Prize at the 1991 Hunting Observer Competition and Commended Prizes at the 1992 and 1993 BP Portrait Award. But he felt that it was “too much too soon.” Still only in his mid-twenties, he planned to retreat to Scotland for six months “to take time out from constant portrait commissions in London and so I could live cheaper with less financial burdens. Also I felt this could give me a chance to experiment with painting stuff other than portraits.” He rented “a massive studio in Edinburgh, much bigger than I could afford in London at the time.”
Then he met an LA lady and followed her to California in “a pretty spontaneous move.” The US sojourn influenced his work: “The trip to LA allowed me to try out landscapes and got me interested in colour,” he says.
The relationship ended after a year or so and Brendan returned to Europe. He received a commission to paint a large group portrait, Family Secrets, in Munich, where for a while he retained a studio. “The Munich painting was very difficult,” he explains. “I ended up completing it back in Edinburgh, where I worked for another 2–3 years, partly on experimental pictures (like Nude in a Nightclub, which was joint second in the 2001 BP Portrait Award), partly on portrait commissions.”
What was intended as six months away from London became a five-year journey across continents. Refreshed by his travels, Brendan returned to London: “I did feel more ready then for the London art world. I had got a lot of experiments out of my system, I had developed my computer skills, which have helped a lot in my image making in recent years, and, most importantly, I had spent a massive amount of my time developing various approaches to my drawing, which have been the backbone of much of my painting over the past ten years. Drawing helps me solve problems.”
“The thing I’m really interested in is light,” asserts Brendan. “I use light as an emotional tool, like a cinematographer.” He cites the “Antiguan light” of the Sir Vivian Richards portrait as a good example of this. The chiaroscuro here captures something of the dualities of Richards’ character—light and dark, mellow and fiery. The Richards painting was commissioned as part of the Marylebone Cricket Club’s “Portrait Project” at Lord’s Cricket Ground, to which Brendan also contributed a painting of the former Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq. Other MCC artists resident in The Art Academy building include Phil Hale, James Kelly and Jennifer McRae.
He likes to work from photographs. For The Herat Room he took 200 photos each of the 18 figures depicted in the painting. Its subdued lighting is apt for its dark subject matter, showing the 18 NATO Generals in a room previously used by the Taliban. “I tried to paint it really still and subdued, the opposite of the Viv Richards portrait,” he explains. “I didn’t want to sensationalise it.”
His portraits are done in oils or acrylics. He likes the consistency and reliability of oils in particular: “When you put oil down, you know that’s the colour it will be.”
He admits, “I have no time to look around galleries so I don’t know much about my contemporaries” but Cezanne is “my number one… Sargent is number two.” Matisse is also a favourite. He has a “catalogue” of images on his iPhone of “quite random” paintings that he sometimes consults for ideas and inspiration.
“As a portrait painter, you duck into these worlds that are quite interesting and diverse,” reveals Brendan. Afghanistan, which he visited as part of his work on The Herat Room, is surely an “interesting and diverse” place. The helmets and bulletproof jackets necessary in Afghanistan were something of a culture shock, even to somebody whose studio is in South London. He visited President Karzai’s palace several times: “Every president of Afghanistan has been assassinated, so he wouldn’t leave the palace.”
Perhaps the largest formal military painting done since World War II, The Herat Room is named after the briefing room at the NATO HQ in Kabul where the painting is set. The perspective focuses on the map of Helmand, where there was much fighting at that time, at the back of the room. Brendan confesses that he got the idea for this from Leonardo’s Last Supper, in which the perspective focuses on the central figure of Christ.
The 12 feet by five and a half feet canvas of The Herat Room was assembled in the old Art Academy building and then pulled up the stairs of the current building. A wall had to be knocked down to get it into Brendan’s studio.
The artist laments that the public will not see the painting—currently it is in Germany and then it will be hung at Army HQ in Wiltshire. But that is often the fate of portraits of noted public figures.
“My brain’s burning with all these ideas but I have to get the commissions done,” he concedes. “I’ve been painting war and khaki and camouflage for ages. I’d like to do something more light-hearted, with a bit more colour in it.” Or he could just play his guitar.
1 Major General A Watt (Canadian)
2 Brigadier NAW Pope (UK)
3 UK officer
4 Brigadier RR Davis CBE (UK)
5 Lieutenant Colonel AD Johnston MBE (UK)
6 Major General GE Gay (Italian)
7 US officer
8 Major General JJC Bucknall CBE (UK)
9 UK officer
10 Brigadier NG Smith (UK)
11 Brigadier RE Nugee MBE (UK)
12 Mr T Jagger MOD (UK)
13 Brigadier General HC Ammon (German)
14 Lieutenant Colonel JU Biggart MBE (UK)
15 Major General SR Layfield (US)
16 Brigadier RJC Maxwell OBE (UK)
17 General DJ Richards CBE, DSO (UK)
18 General Wardak (Afghan Defence Minister)