The People’s Portrait: Capturing Human Experience on Television and Canvas

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The People’s Portrait follows the story of Falklands War veteran Simon Weston as he becomes the first person voted for by the public to be painted for the National Portrait Gallery. Chosen by viewers of The One Show, Weston is painted by esteemed artist Nicky Philipps, who is perhaps best known for her portraits of the royal family.

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The main focus of the programme is Weston’s recovery from the serious injuries he suffered during the Falklands War. His story captures popular narratives that resonate both on a societal and individual level: overcoming adversity, courage, loss and triumph. As such, Weston is portrayed as the archetypal war hero. This image is brought to life by clips taken from a documentary Weston was involved in at the time of his injuries and rehabilitation. The audience is not just being told the story; they are witnessing the unfolding of events on screen in scenes that are often distressing and emotional.

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The finished portrait is a representation of this narrative. Throughout the programme it is clear that Philipps’ task is to capture this human experience on canvas. However, in contrast to Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year, which follows a relatively unknown artist as he paints author Hilary Mantel, Philipps is already an established artist who is respected within the art world. The ‘reveal’ of the painting at the end of the programme is not to the audience. We see the finished piece before it is unveiled at the gallery. Our anticipation is on Weston’s reaction to the piece, which he does not see prior to the unveiling. We are not being placed in a position to critique Philipps’ piece, but rather witness Weston’s reaction as the figure of ‘the war hero’ that has been built up throughout the programme is reflected back at him.

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The outcome of both the portrait itself and the documentary surrounding it serve similar ends. Both represent Weston’s story, capturing the narrative in a form that aims to provoke a strong emotional reaction from those who see it. However, whereas one piece moves through time and space; telling as well as showing, the other captures a single moment in time; static and silent. The process of painting the piece is portrayed as an emotional journey of understanding the subject, resulting in the nature of art being represented in the romantic sense of capturing human experience and universal truth.

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Although there’s a sense that some would write The People’s Portrait off as more of a human-interest piece than an arts programme, I would argue that the two categories are in no way mutually exclusive. At their core, the arts engage us in shared human experience, expressing our very nature of being. I would suggest that perhaps there should be more arts programming that engages with the audience in this highly emotive way, provoking us to feel the art being presented on screen, rather than just witness it. Encouraging us to engage with it on an individual level, as opposed to just understanding it within a wider cultural and economic context.

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