Close to Home – William Beetham Portraits

Portraits are a statement about societal manners as much as they are the record of the appearance of a particular individual.  Above all perhaps, throughout the history of image making, portraits have been an attempt to preserve and immortalise the status and position of the subject as worthy and important.

The current exhibition of Beetham portraits at Aratoi extols the values of probity, dignity, sobriety and respectability as much as they are records of the appearance of their mostly family subjects.

William Beetham Self Portrait 1850s

William – Self Portrait

Richmond Beetham

Richmond

Catherine Beetham - after 1885

Catherine

Annie Beetham

Annie

Portraits do give a viewer an opportunity to do more than just reverently acknowledge their position in society. The sometimes-weird-for-us dress, posture or expression of the Beetham subjects does still allows some scope for the viewer to try to empathise with the situation their body language implies. 

The impediment to that comes when that body language becomes too clear a statement of social status.  The ‘I am a very wise and respectable citizen of the world’ self portrait of the 1850’s is one example of this, but the almost chocolate-box oval frame and presentation of ‘Annie’ and ‘Richmond’ also makes it hard to hard to empathise with them as subjects.  On the other hand, William’s mother Catherine is still someone we can actually imagine.

To qualify for the description portraits do need to have some measure of recognisability and believability even if we have no basis of familiarity with the subject itself.  I can believe in the person of Catherine even if she does seem a bit intimidating.  Annie, Richmond and William are a little more difficult because of the presentation of a constructed fashionable and artificial persona appropriate to the time of their painting.

Our connection with portraits has a long history, dating right back to cave drawings, which probably referred, even without resemblance, to specific people and incidents.  The basis of discrimination which says that one portrait is true and another is not is extremely subtle. 

I am amazed and dumbfounded at the ease with which infants can be trained to discriminate and respond with recognition to photos of their parents and other close relatives before they can even talk.  There is really very little commonality between a thin sheet of printed photo paper and a living, noisy, snorting and sometimes fiery human being.  Our attachment to portrait is an aspect of our highly cultivated ability to recognise and categorise all the faces that surround us.

‘Cameo a brief appearance’ by Linda Wood is showing in the Windows Gallery and serves to make a different claim for portrait, by associating each person with objects animals or symbolism, in an attempt to make a wider set of claims about the painter’s world view.  They are less concerned with description of the subject but use the identification with the subject to help substantiate the artist’s argument.

Most contemporary portraiture is bedded in celebrity.  The supreme modern proponent of this portraiture was Andy Warhol, but New Zealand has its own specialist in Peter Stichbury, whose recent portrait of Lorde quickly followed her singing success and was promoted through the media as having a $30,000 value in keeping with the status of the subject.

Lorde by Peter Stitchbury

Lorde by Peter Stitchbury

A comparison between Beetham’s portraits and the Stichbury / Wood style gives a commentary on ideas about fashion in both painting and contemporary values.  To some extent the attempt of historical painters to present a ‘real’ person has been abandoned in favour of mild caricature and a one dimensional branding that glamorises the subject in keeping with the airbrushing techniques of advertising photography.

One Comment

  1. Toby Clark March 19, 2017 at 3:06 am - Reply

    Hi Paul,

    A full wikipedia page on William Beetham is now online here.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Beetham

    My best,
    Toby

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