For years, the portrait painter Mark Gilbert had no qualms about disappointing his sitters in the name of art. “They found my paintings unflattering,” the slight, 32-year-old Glaswegian confesses. “I couldn’t give a monkey’s how my models felt and I’d exaggerate any blemish.”
That was before he found himself working with subjects whom he absolutely could not offend, and whose flaws demanded compassion rather than mockery. “I couldn’t go off on any Bacon-esque artistic tangents. Every mark I made had to be as honest as possible. I didn’t want to feel inhibited. But it mattered how they felt.”
Gilbert’s transformation follows a two-year stint as a painter in residence at the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Unit of St Bartholemew’s and the Royal London Hospital, led by the consultant surgeon Iain Hutchison . At Hutchison ‘s instigation, and with his sponsorship, Gilbert followed patients before, during and after the surgery that has corrected facial deformities, repaired the damage caused by fights and car-crashes or removed cancerous tumours.
The resulting paintings have now been collected in an exhibition called Saving Faces , which opens at the National Portrait Gallery later this month. And now, Gilbert and I are sitting in a deserted office at the London Hospital, in Whitechapel, while he talks me through a carousel of slides, taken from the show.
The twisted, apparently embittered face of a pre-operative patient called Rhonda is followed immediately by a smiling, bright-eyed, beautiful woman, with her hair nicely styled and her make-up happily applied. It’s Rhonda, again. “She’s absolutely lovely,” says Gilbert. “The painting doesn’t do her justice at all.”
The two images contain a novel’s worth of narrative. They form part of an exhibition that is at various points gruesomely realistic – Gilbert’s vastly magnified depictions of sliced-open faces in mid-operation are horribly fascinating, but not for the squeamish – joyously uplifting, and even heartbreaking.
To see these paintings is to be reminded – or perhaps reassured – that there is still more to art than the ability to switch a light bulb on and off. Gilbert, who has won three prizes at the BP Portrait Awards, has made no money from the paintings: he was paid a small allowance while he was working on the project, virtually all of which went on his materials and rent (he lived in a nurses’ hostel). But, he says, he has been given the sort of chance that only comes once in an artist’s lifetime. “You wonder if you’ll ever do anything again that has the kind of feedback this has, or is as tangibly rewarding.
“I was never repelled or distressed, but I was constantly being moved. And it was all the more moving when I started to know the patients. As time went by, those were good friends on the operating table.”
That the opportunity arose at all was due to Iain Hutchison . The 53-year-old husband of Helena Kennedy QC is one of the world’s leading maxillofacial surgeons and a passionate campaigner for more research into facial cancers . Thanks to a small legacy, left to him by his mother, he was able to start the Saving Faces project in 1999, thereby fulfilling an ambition that he’d nurtured for several years.
“I wanted to inform the public about what was and wasn’t possible with modern facial surgery,” he explains. “And I also wanted to inform them about facial disfigurement, particularly among some cancer patients. Their faces can never be the same again. But I wanted to show the public that they can still lead fulfilled lives.
“But where on earth was I going to find the artist? I didn’t think of Mark, even though he’d done wonderful paintings that I’d seen, and he’d even gone out with my niece. Then we met one day on Glasgow Central Station.
I said, `What are you doing?’ He told me he was teaching in a girls’ school. I said, `Right! Ring me when you get there.’ And suddenly, it all came together.
“I vividly remember the first sketch he did. I grabbed the office secretaries and said, `Come and look at this!’ They had never been interested in art before, but they were moved by this. Mark was painting in this pokey little office. Every day, they’d go in and talk to him and have a look at what he was doing. Patients would come in and look at each others’ pictures. Mark became part of all our lives almost immediately.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of the project to an artist. But what about the patients? Was their doctor not worried that they might object to being painted? Hutchison says not. “I selected patients whom I thought would enjoy being done and had a significant condition that I wanted to portray for the general public. All the patients said, `Yes.’ Two or three of them didn’t turn up for appointments – that was the way they dealt with it.”
Three of the patients who did turn up for their sittings have come to the London Hospital to tell me their stories. Yet when we are first introduced, I feel a tinge of disappointment. The sunken left side of Roland Scott’s face bears traces of surgery (he has actually lost his cheekbone, palate and upper jaw). But what are Sue Morgan Elphick – an attractive 35-year-old woman in a jolly pink top – or the bespectacled, floppy-haired Chris Pavlou doing at the meeting?
And then I see their “before” pictures. Pavlou was beaten to a pulp by a gang of men armed with baseball bats. In Mark Gilbert’s first painting of him, his head (shown immediately after his operation) is shaved, his face swollen and scarred, his mouth hidden beneath a swathe of bandages.
“I like the painting,” Pavlou says. “It’s very Andy Warhol – a bright red background with this monster in the middle. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and I get very depressed in the winter months. But when I see that portrait, I say to myself, `What have you got to be depressed about? It’s good to be alive.’ “
For her part, Sue Morgan Elphick spent the first three decades of her life suffering from a facial deformity that made her lower jaw protrude beneath her upper, like that of a barracuda. “I felt as though I was a walking freak-show. I was made to feel like a freak, and I really took it to heart. When I was a teenager no one wanted to know me. I never got any attention. I never had any boyfriends.”
She was actually working as a nurse in Hutchison ‘s operating theatre when he suggested that he might be able to help her. Essentially, he smashed and then rebuilt every bone in her face , holding the new structure together with strips of titanium. “It was an excruciating pain that you can never forget,” she recalls. “Being a nurse, I can empathise with the pain of a patient now. Before I was just pretending.”
But the pain was triumphantly worthwhile. “As soon as I’d had the surgery and the swelling went down, it was like I’d been reborn. I changed the way I walked, the way I dressed. And I smiled. I never used to smile.”
Sue grins wickedly as she remembers something: “I was in Lewisham Tescos and I got a wolf-whistle. I turned around and smiled and winked at the man. I just thought, Yes!”
H er case illustrates the degree to which we form our opinions of a person’s character on the basis of their facial appearance. Sue is bubbling with energy and life. Yet the person in her pre-op portrait does not seem remotely likeable. As Iain Hutchison points out, “Sue looked like a miserable sod, but in fact she never was. She was funny and great company. People just assumed she was miserable because of the way she looked.”
For her own part, the experience of being painted had an entirely unexpected side-effect: Mark Gilbert’s objective depiction of Sue’s new-found looks confirmed a truth that she had never quite dared believe. She really had been transformed.
“When I first saw my painting, it was like a slap in the face . I thought, `Bloody hell!’ – I’d never have thought about myself that way before. But it just oozed the way I now was, the way I felt about myself.”
To Roland Scott, the process of being painted during and after his cancer treatment acted as a form of explanation, commemoration and also therapy. His favourite one of Mark’s paintings shows him staring, wide-eyed with fear, through the mask that was applied to his face before his daily radiotherapy sessions.
“It captures exactly how I felt with that mask on,” he says. “I actually used Mark as a psychotherapist. I was telling him about all the little problems I had, things I hadn’t been able to tell Iain because he’s so busy. The next thing I knew, I was getting phone-calls from Iain , because Mark had relayed what I’d been saying.”
The pride that the patients feel at being part of the Saving Faces project is as palpable as their gratitude for the treatment they have received. The show has been on tour around Britain before its arrival at the National Portrait Gallery. As a reporter I should maintain at least a pretence of objectivity, but excuse my bias on this occasion: I honestly believe that anyone who has the slightest interest in art, or any feeling for our common humanity should go and see this exhibition.
As Chris Pavlou sums it up, “A lot of people might think, `That’s disgusting. How can you exhibit something like that?’ But I’m glad I did it. The painting might be hanging in a gallery one day, like the Mona Lisa. And I can say, `That’s me.’ “
Saving Faces : Portraits by Mark Gilbert ran at the National Portrait Gallery from Feb 27 to April 21 2002.
Reproduced from The Sunday Telegraph, 6th of March 2002.