This essay was first published in October 2018 for the launch of Pinter At The Pinter, a run of short plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, where Amy Shuckburgh’s portrait now lives permanently.
Painting Harold Pinter by Amy Shuckburgh
I first met Harold at my family home in Shepherd’s Bush, about 15 years ago. He and his wife Antonia Fraser regularly came to play bridge with my mother and, because I was living there at the time, I often joined them for supper. Harold was thrilling company, a capricious mix of stern and playful, funny and frightening, combative and generous. Conversations with Harold were exciting and unpredictable. He had extremely strong views on US politics, the Iraq war and Tony Blair, and with these I would never have dared disagree, but on other topics he was eager to hear my views. I remember us talking about ways in which technology could change human behaviour (he was interested that I’d read that soldiers played computer games to help anaesthetise them to killing). I had been warned that Harold hated being asked how he was, (he was already ill with cancer by this time). If the usual default greeting slipped out: ‘Hello Harold, how are you?’ he would simply not answer, rather than lie that he was fine. We had to think ahead of time of interesting things to say. I relished these evenings and enjoyed my theoretical or anthropological verbal spats with Harold. We got on well.
In the spring of 2006, I wrote to ask Harold to sit for me for a portrait. I’d just been to see A Kind of Alaska, a short play of his about a girl who wakes up after being in a 29-year coma. I’d seen it performed as part of a double-bill along with A Slight Ache at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. As I made my way into the dark auditorium and found my seat, I saw Harold and Antonia already sitting in the row along from me, by complete chance. I’m sure watching a play with the playwright present bestows it with a special intensity. As the first play began, I had to lean forward and interrupt a canoodling couple in the row in front, to whisper that the playwright sat behind them and was annoyed by their distracting behaviour. Harold thanked me afterwards and said he would have happily had them kicked out!
Afterwards, I wrote Harold a long letter about how A Kind of Alaska reminded me of my own childhood illness when I had lain in bed for 12 months and missed a year of school, and how it had felt then to exist on the outside of life. Whenever a play of Harold’s was staged, he would always want to hear our responses in forensic detail. My letter was verbose; his response was brief. “What a story you tell! About a portrait, why not!”
So after making arrangements with his assistant, in late April 2006 I bicycled to Harold’s study, a 2-storey mews house backing onto his home in Holland Park. Harold greeted me warmly, dressed in a black silk shirt unbuttoned to the chest and smart black trousers. He had an air of Johnny Cash to him. His assistant sat downstairs and the study was upstairs. Climbing the narrow staircase, Harold pointed out numerous awards, honorary degrees and signed photographs which lined the walls.
Harold was open and chatty; he complimented me on my dress, we talked about the spring heatwave and my bike ride up the hill. Thick clouds of pollen from the plane trees on Holland Park Avenue spun in the air outside, and I remember describing them as pixelating the day; Harold asked me where that word came from, always fascinated with language. He asked if I had brought special lights to set up for the sitting, but I had just a sketch book and my camera. Sunshine flooded through the wide casement window and the light in the room was lovely. Small objects including a Buddha figure sat on the windowsill. Hardback books lined one long wall; an Anish Kapoor painting hung behind a big mahogany leather-topped desk. Harold opened champagne. He made it feel like an occasion. Then he sat in a leather chair beneath the bookcase and I started to draw.
He asked if I knew yet how I would paint him. I think I decided then that I would try a few different approaches - I usually worked in either oil or pastel. I asked him how he knew if an idea of his would take the form of a poem or a play. He said it was instinct, not a preconceived intention. I liked this as an approach in my own work, and still do. I was with Harold for close to two hours that day, and eventually cycled back to my studio to look through my sketches.
I returned for a second sitting a couple of weeks later. This time his assistant ushered me into the drawing room of the main house where I found Harold sitting in an armchair. He was obviously unwell, and looked feebler and more tired than before, but he was friendly and welcoming. I took some photos and I sketched. We chatted about how the painting was coming along. At one point, to his amusement, I asked Harold to stop talking so I could try and capture his mouth, which I had been finding difficult to get right in the studio. His humour and intensity were still there, but he was softer and frailer. I let myself out when I was done. That was to be our final sitting.
I later found out that the very week in which I had written to Harold to ask him to sit for a portrait, so had Lucian Freud. Harold went for several sitting at Freud’s studio, but by then was too unwell to endure the long hours Freud required and gave up out of exhaustion. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to draw Harold Pinter from life, at a high point in his career and towards the end of his life. The spring I painted him he received the Legion D’Honneur, and had just received the Nobel Prize for Literature. My paintings and sketches of Harold show the man I had got to know over the course of several years - a warm, humorous, inquisitive bon-viveur, a man who loved to question and to pry, to ruffle conversation and provoke thought, who was eager to discover what changes our modern age would bring, to look ahead and to follow his instinct. Antonia once told me that she was endlessly surprised by the people Harold was drawn to, she could never predict who would particularly interest or appeal to him.
When I presented my two finished portraits to Harold in the autumn of 2006, I unveiled them at a Bridge Supper in Shepherds Bush. As usual the guests were Harold and Antonia, my mother Sarah Shuckburgh, and our friend Gila Falkus. The first portrait was an oil painting of Harold seated thoughtfully in three-quarter view in the leather chair in his study, books behind him, the window onto the street lighting his face, his black silk shirt and his hands. The other portrait was an energetic pastel drawing in loose bold colours, his gaze directly out at the viewer, head and shoulders cropped and about 5 times life-size. Harold was immediately drawn to the latter. He liked the good humour I’d seen, the directness, a flirtatious twinkle in the eye. He said the portrait of him at the National Portrait Gallery showed what Antonia liked to call Harold’s ‘East Timor face’ and that I had caught him happier, truer; perhaps his west London face.
Harold and Antonia bought, and subsequently encouraged me to exhibit, the pastel portrait. 2007 happened to be the 50th anniversary of Harold’s first play, and so my portrait found an ideal opportunity to tour the country for much of that year, being hung at centenary celebrations in theatre foyers and universities, including the National Theatre in London, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Donmar Warehouse, Trafalgar Studios and the Workshop Theatre in Leeds. When Harold died the following winter, Antonia used the portrait on the Order of Service at his funeral. And still, I hear, during games of bridge at my mother’s house (where the portrait now hangs above the fireplace), Antonia likes to sit opposite it, so that Harold is still there as part of their bridge four, watching her play, and undoubtedly about to say something sharp and provocative.
© Amy Shuckburgh France, July 2018