This interview with portrait painter Sergey Pavlenko was recorded by Oksana Karnovich, Director of the Galina Ulanova Museum-Apartment in Moscow, and Maria Lvova, Member of Russian Heritage in the United Kingdom.
We are in the very centre of London, on the busy, but cozy High Street Kensington. The reason was for the participation in the jury of the Fourth International Art and Creative Contest “Outstanding Russians. The history of cooperation between Russian and British educators and scientists”, which was organised by “Russian Heritage in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Before the meeting, I had only one question for the jury member Sergey Pavlenko and for myself – “How did a maestro with a Russian surname turn out to be the main contender for the role of the Royal Family artist?”. I questioned Sergey about this, and the following interview emerged.
Maria Lvova: Sergey, so did you paint the royal family?
Sergey Pavlenko: No, I did not draw the royal family. I painted a portrait of the queen!
ML (thought): In my head, the words of the painting teacher of an art school, where I had the opportunity to graduate in Moscow, instantly arise: “the artist does not draw, the artist writes, from the word “painting”
Pictures, indeed, are painted more often, rather than drawn, which is connected with the etymology of these words. The word “draw” (“рисовать”) appeared in Russian at the very beginning of the 18th century; it has been noted in dictionaries since 1731. It is borrowed from Western European languages, where its senior meaning was “draw, cut, scratch”. To draw is to depict, reproduce objects on a plane (pencil, pen, charcoal, paints). The word to paint has been known since the 11th century, but its meaning was closer to the modern concept of “paint in colors”. It is enough to recall that the words “motley” and “write / dazzle” have one root.
According to dictionaries, painting is called fine art that reproduces objects and phenomena of the real world with the help of paints. The word is a tracing- paper from the Greek language. The fact is that in the ancient world, the ability to draw an object “like in real life” was especially appreciated. It is no coincidence that there were legends about the artist’s ability to draw grapes in such a way that birds flew to peck them.
Fortunately for me, another member of the jury joined us, the director of the Galina Ulanova museum-apartment in Moscow, Oksana Karnovich appeared with a voice recorder in her hands, asking for permission to record, which allowed me to correct and repeat my first question in a more skillful way.
ML: Sergey, getting back to my first question, are you the same artist who painted the members of the royal family?
SP: Yes, one portrait, a canvas is a family portrait with the concept of the princes studying at a military academy.
ML: Did you paint from the actual princes or from a photograph? How did the process go?
SP: First, the composition was developed. And at this stage I knew how many people would be there. Their role was played by cadets, respectively, male and female. The general was the actual general, and the princes were the actual princes. But at that time they were all dressed in khaki, as I can remember, except for the princes. The princes were already in full uniform. And I just moved them like chess pieces, developing different compositional options. Because, you might understand, when a crowd of people is below my gaze, they all overlap each other on the same level, or they must be put in a row, like a football team. Neither is the best option.
Fortunately, I had a way out of the situation due to the fact that there were steps that allowed to spread everything horizontally and make a more or less interesting composition. I drew a sketch. Then there was another rehearsal, which was attended by everyone except the members of the royal family, but there were … [recalls] trumpeters, yes, trumpeters. But, unfortunately, they appeared in the wrong uniform, because when there was a real parade already, they were in a different uniform. But nobody told me about this, and I had to do a second sketch.
The third time was, in fact, the action itself – there was a parade, and they all arrived. And since the sketch was already approved, the task of the princes was to arrange all the participants as needed and depicted in my sketch. All this action lasted roughly three minutes. Certainly, in parallel, a lot of photos were taken, one way or another, so that some details and poses could be considered. And then, when the painting itself was being painted, they posed individually in Buckingham Palace. That, in fact, is the whole story.
ML: Did each character pose in the approved position as shown in the final sketch?
SP: Of course, yes. Everyone was in a uniform. Absolutely as they should be.
Oksana Karnovich: Did they sit patiently?
SP: They stood. Stood as much as needed. But there’s something interesting. In Russia, if you went to different exhibitions in the 70-80s, there were autumn painting or spring ones, for example, “Lenin in the Gorki”, “Gorky, hosting the Archery Parade” [laughs] … In general, people painted portraits of people whom they had never seen. Or a portrait of Alexander Green. And sometimes they were good, you know. Because they were based on such figurative similarities. It was not so important to draw or not, by looking at actual people. In England, it’s the opposite. If a person did not pose for the artist – that’s it. For professional portrait galleries such portraits are not of interest. Therefore, when they told me that no one would pose separately, I answered – you know that if no one poses, then your painting will not have value. So they immediately organized all this for me [laughs].
OK: Incredible! How many royal family members did you paint?
S.P.: In this case, there was Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Charles, Camilla, two princes … that’s all. Yes, there was a general, a senior sergeant and trumpeters, two trumpeters.
OK: And everything was painted in Buckingham Palace?
SP: No, it was painted in the studio, but they posed in Buckingham Palace. It’s better. Everyone posed in Buckingham Palace, except for Charles and Camilla, who posed in Clarence House.
ML: Who approved you? Who picked the main artist for this role? You were already in England at that time, not in Russia I suppose.
SP: Yes, I was already in England, it was the seventh year of my stay here. The truth is that I had already painted the Queen before.
ML: But how were you chosen to paint the first portrait of the queen?
SP: Voters were in charge [laughs] … You want to know everything right away and don’t let me say [laughs] …
ML: Because I’m curious, you see. I was the one who approached you with a question, and not you [everyone laughs] …
SP: Yes, you are right, I’ll tell you. Voters went to the National Portrait Gallery and searched for the file with names, which at that time still existed in the gallery. There was no computer system yet. According to this file, they selected people whose style made them more or less satisfied. Then they narrowed and narrowed the list, and I was the only one left [laughs].
ML: Ah, I see, they have already seen your works and your style. How interesting that such style of painting caught their gaze.
OK: So they did see your works?
SP: No, not the actual works, but their photos in a file. The National Portrait Gallery is a very strange establishment. Very.
ML: How did your works get there?
SP: They did not. There are only photos. They don’t have and did not have any of my works in the exhibition or their property. But because they keep lists of prominent artists, who paint and create well-known British portraits, I belong to that circle of artists.
ML: Are all your works part of private collections then?
SP: Almost every piece, except museums. Do we consider museums as a private collection or not?! [ponders]
OK: That is to say, the members of the royal family also ordered you a portrait, particularly for themselves?
SP: No, no, there’s no such thing; the members of the royal family do not order anything for themselves at all. Someone else always orders, for example, to write to the members of the royal family.
ML: Have you ever painted Prince Michael of Kent?
SP: Well, I have, the painting is … let me remember where … Michael of Kent is depicted as a freemason. There is a portrait in some London branch of the freemasons club.
ML: Is he a member of the freemasons society?
SP: Yes, he is a freemason, a famous freemason. I painted the two main masons in life. The first was Michael of Kent. That’s right, it was Michael, Duke of Kent. And the second, who really ran everything – Marquess of Northampton.
ML: Sergey, thanks for the fascinating interview.