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National Portrait Gallery unveils newly commissioned portraits of leading film directors

Sam Mendes, charcoal, 2019, 29 x 44cm.

Exhibition preview

THE National Portrait Gallery, London, has unveiled a major new commission of portrait drawings of some of the UK’s leading film directors by London-born artist Nina Mae Fowler.

The portraits have gone on public display for the first time in a new display Luminary Drawings: Portraits of Film Directors by Nina Mae Fowler (April 12 to October 1, 2019).

Fowler’s work often investigates fame, desire and our relationship with cinema. For the commission, she invited directors Amma Asante, Paul Greengrass, Asif Kapadia, Ken Loach, Sam Mendes, Nick Park, Sally Potter, Sir Ridley Scott and Joe Wright to choose a film of particular significance to them.

During the sittings, Fowler projected the film of their choice, and recorded their reactions on camera and through loose sketches, with their faces lit only by the light of the screen in an otherwise darkened space.

Fowler watched the films of the sittings frame by frame to extract stills that would form the basis of the final charcoal drawings. Intriguingly the artist has chosen not to reveal the directors’ film choices. The intimate scale of the works draws the viewer into the minds of the people behind the lens, conveying the inspiration felt by the directors when watching great cinema.


Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery said: “We are delighted to have unveiled this unique commission, which has been a long-term ambition for the Gallery to help strengthen our representation of the talent and diversity within the film industry in the UK today.”

Nina Mae Fowler, artist, said: “The beauty of these sittings was twofold; firstly, the Directors lost any sense of being watched or portrayed as they were too engrossed in the film, secondly, we experienced the film together, which created conversation, laughter and an immediate bond between strangers. I want the viewer to wonder what film the directors are watching and to seek the answers in their faces. The only clues the viewer has are their reactions, the exact frame (documented in the titles) and the light thrown on them by the films themselves.”

Amma Asante, (A Way of Life, A United Kingdom, Where Hands Touch), said: “It has been both a privilege and a fascinating experience to sit for Nina. Her work somehow captures what a photograph cannot. There is a mystique that I find utterly compelling and beautiful.”

Paul Greengrass, (The Murder of Steven Lawrence, United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum), said: “I’ve never sat for a portrait, so it was a strange experience to say the least! Directors are more used to studying others, than being studied, but I was swept along by Nina’s conviction that she could create a unique group of portraits that anthologise a diverse group of British film makers at a time when the British film community is in a rich period of growth. And, second, through ‘observing the observers’ create a collective study of obsession, which is ultimately what filmmaking is all about.”

Ken Loach, (Cathy Come Home, Kes, I, Daniel Blake), said: “This was a delightful project but also an original one. It was easy to be drawn into a film that I know well, but was pleased to enjoy again. What a treat!”

Ridley Scott, charcoal, 2019, 29 x 44cm.

Asif Kapadia, (The Warrior, Senna, Amy), said: “I was so surprised, honoured and excited when I learnt that Nina Mae Fowler was going to draw my portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. It was a strange feeling to be studied, I’m obviously used to being behind the camera, or I’m the one studying people for years when in the edit suite as I make my films, so this was an unusual situation. I’ve now seen the drawing and I think it’s really fantastic, it’s me!”

Sam Mendes, (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Skyfall), said: “Being watched has never been so much fun.”

Nick Park, (The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave, Chicken Run), said: “The format for this sitting was very unique and inspired – the idea to get me to watch my favourite movie while having my portrait sketched was very effective – I was absorbed and unaware of being observed and my every reaction, expression and nuance being noted.”

Sally Potter, (Orlando, Yes, The Party), said: “Being watched while watching was an interesting reversal. I often strive for invisibility as a director. I am there to look, not to be looked at. The portrait somehow looks the way I feel – hidden (in this case behind my hand and glasses) but beady- eyed. I recognise myself in a way I rarely do in a photograph.”

Sir Ridley Scott, (Alien franchise, Gladiator, Blade Runner), said: “I was not keen on sitting for a portrait because I dislike being photographed intensely. But Nina persevered and is a hard one to turn down. She sent me a book on her work, and I was blown away. She explained her technique and how she worked to enable people to sit still for the session. In my case, she wanted me to watch the first film I ever saw. I think it worked out.”

Joe Wright, (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Darkest Hour), said: “I thoroughly enjoyed Nina’s process. Having me watch one of my favourite movies whilst I sat for her meant that I wasn’t too self-conscious. The relationship between viewer and movie is strangely intimate, and I think Nina’s portrait captures that intimacy.”

Images: Sam Mendes, charcoal, 2019, 29 × 44cm (top); Ridley Scott, charcoal, 2019, 29 × 44cm (bottom).

Admission: Free.


National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE