TAITMAIL Good to see you, Adam…

Each year the Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition at the Mall Galleries comes up with something at least worthy of note if not always drawing admiration: a new image of a royal, a celebrity, a famous beauty, a family member, an ordinary character that appealed to the artist or just a fine piece of painting.

Seldom is there a painting that challenges both the viewer, the artist, the sitter and society all at the same time, but in this year’s show, which closes on Saturday, June 1, there is one that has surprise, wonder, maybe even shock and compassion: Tim Benson’s oil painting of the actor, TV presenter and campaigner Adam Pearson.

Benson has Pearson relaxed in a large yellow armchair, wearing sweatshirt and jeans, leaning forward, elbows on knees, with his gaze steadily, maybe defiantly, on the viewer. His appearance is a head-turner.

Pearson has neurofibromatosis, the condition that can grotesquely alter facial features, and he has taken his appearance and made it work for him instead of allowing it to limit his life. There are three types of the condition, NF1, 2 and 3, and there are about 2,500 sufferers in the UK. Pearson has NF1. Clinicians call it a “genetic spelling mistake” which allows nerve tumours to grow where they shouldn’t.

This portrait is part of his challenge to us and himself. Now 39 he was born in Croydon and his identical twin, Neil, also has the condition but without the manifestations. Adam’s developed after, aged five, he banged his head leaving a wound that didn’t heal and non-cancerous tumours developed. There is no cure and as yet no satisfactory treatment. 

He lives in Addiscombe, is a church-goer which informs his philosophy for life, and has a degree in business management.
 
“My approach to my condition has been to deliberately place my face right into the spotlight. I don’t want to shy away” he says. “I see my face as a personal mission, to use it to challenge us as a society and provide brave advocacy for those suffering in a similar way but less able to speak up. I am, and have always been, very confident and so I use this for others. Sitting for a portrait is just another way to raise awareness. But, at the same time, I made a friend in Tim and found healing from the human gaze – if even momentarily in the artists’ chair.”
 
Tim Benson is a multi-award winning painter who is currently the portraiture tutor at the Royal Academy, and teaches portrait painting at a number of other art schools. For five years he was president of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.
 
“My personal remit as a painter is to build awareness around important issues” he says. “With Adam, I first wanted to help the viewer look past the standard of what someone is supposed to look like - to help use the medium of paint to achieve him just being looked at as another human. I am interested in the challenge to look at people who have facial differences with grace and understanding, and have tried to also achieve this in my paintings of Ebola survivors in Africa or those with serious eye conditions.”
 
Pearson has made a career out of his appearance – “I would be nothing without this face” he told Benson. He has worked in TV production, for the BBC and Channel 4 on programmes such as The Uneatables and Beauty and the Beast, and he was in the cast of the Scarlett Johansson film Under the Skin. He has a lot of requests from artists to paint him but is very selective. “I have to trust that their intentions are in the right place” he says. “People often tell me it’s not my job to make people feel at ease, to put on my little performance to address the tension, but I don’t agree. I think it is my responsibility. For me, it is actually about asserting some control over my situation. I can’t help how I look but I can help how I respond and how I encourage others to react to me. 
 
“It isn’t easy to be vulnerable but that is what Tim has done so well in his painting - to uncover something of me which goes beyond just my appearance. This may be largely unconscious to Tim, but his painting goes much deeper than a photograph would. There is also a stillness about sitting which is hard to hide behind.”
 
So there had to be a consensual respect on both sides for the project to work. Pearson’s life is defined by the gaze, which he says there are two sorts: People either can’t stop staring or they look away. “The only way I can break it is to give them something by way of an opener, whether it’s a funny quip or doing something to distract. The artist’s gaze is probably one of the only types of looking which is free of either positions. It legitimises looking in a unique way and, in so doing, frees me from it.”
 
How his own gaze would be perceived concerned Benson, too. He was anxious not to seem voyeuristic, an odd response in one accustomed to painting naked people. In Pearson, his subject was more complex, even more aggressive than the usual sitter.
 
“That was my first thought when I met Adam, especially after the first five minutes when I was aware that the way I was looking was somewhat instinctive, and the way most people must feel on seeing him for the first time. This left pretty much as soon as I started to paint, and I would say that I am now totally blind to it, which I find interesting. There is something about looking as an artist which distances yourself from the subjective reality of what you might be looking at - whether that’s a naked model or someone with a visual difference. It becomes much more about visual honesty - looking carefully and intently and beyond what anyone is supposed to look like.”
 
They became good friends, not always the result of a series of portrait sessions. “Sittings would start with Adam sitting on a chair and us insulting each other”. They are a similar age with similar references and the same silly sense of humour, “although Adam has a particularly well-honed gallows humour that I can’t compete with”. His task was made easier by Pearson’s experience and the shield he had developed against the customary response of onlookers, and his warm voice and readiness to see the funny side helped Benson deal with initial nerves and difficult reactions.
 
“It’s also about trying to create a meaningful legacy within an artistic genre, which is still rife with privilege, power and money” Benson says. “We may have left the days when artists were controlled by wealthy patrons but portraiture artists still largely fund themselves through commissions from clients that exist within a certain narrow sphere. 
 
“I want the onus to shift in portraiture. It needs to be more accessible to everyone and not just the domain and preserve of the wealthy white man. It is the job of art to challenge conventions and I want my portraits to create positive change and break down barriers. And with this picture, on a deeper level we were working to change perceptions."

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