The days of the likes of Gainsborough dominating the city’s art scene may be long gone, but the demand for traditional portraiture is as popular now as ever according to Bath based artist Harriet Dahan-Bouchard. Words by Jackie Brown
In the 18th century, art in Britain underwent a transformation and Bath became a magnet for portraiture. Many renowned artists took up residence in the city, including Thomas Gainsborough, William Hoare and Sir Thomas Lawrence, to paint the countless musicians, actors, and high society elites who flocked to enjoy Bath’s thriving social scene.
Despite today’s advances in photography and the instantaneous sharing of pictures on social media, it seems the demand for traditional portraiture is unwavering. One such artist of this traditional style is Harriet Dahan-Bouchard – a talented young portrait painter who works from her studio in one of Bath’s Georgian townhouses, just a stone’s throw away from where Sir Thomas Lawrence first honed his craft.
With her father, Philip Bouchard, being an artist and her mother an art teacher, it was quite natural for Harriet to find herself among canvases and tubes of paint when she was growing up.
“When I was seven my father bought me a book on August Ingres, which I fell in love with. I asked him if it was something I could do when I grew up. He said being a portrait painter was probably the most stable line of work to pursue as an artist, so I said ‘I’ll do it.’” And Harriet hasn’t looked back since.
After studying at St Gregory’s School and Downside School, Harriet undertook an art foundation course at Bath College before training for three years in Florence, Italy at the Charles H. Cecil Studios. It was here that she perfected the traditional techniques used in drawing and oil painting for portraits. Since then she has been working as a professional artist in Bath for seven years.
With technological advancements and an increasing use of photography, is there really a market these days for people wanting to commission a traditional oil painting? Harriet is quick to confirm that it is something coming back into fashion: “I think people are keen to own an oil painting which can be enjoyed as a piece of art, capturing a moment in time.
“A painting can be seen as immortal, and will be handed down through generations as something beautiful and special in terms of both sentimentality and value. People are aware of things being so disposable that they are now looking for something which will still be appreciated in years to come.”
Each of Harriet’s paintings are unique and she enjoys adding personal touches about her clients’ interests and character to her work. “Although I am trained to produce a specific product a lot of me goes into it. Getting to know my clients makes up a large part of my job and this helps me to bring their character into the painting.”
But could it be a rather lonely profession for such an outgoing character as Harriet? “No, not really – as an only child I am used to my own company, and I think it is just as likely that you could feel lonely in a large office environment full of other people.
“I work as a volunteer at the Holburne Museum and also as the Artist in Residence at Victoria Art Gallery where I am giving one day demonstrations in portrait drawing. I also get to know new sitters and their families really well, and they range in age from young children to the very elderly.”
Harriet recalls her very first portrait commission: “She was a 15 year-old girl called Natalia, dressed in her polo kit. I was 23 and had just finished my training. She was the only job I had lined up, and I was so nervous. It suddenly occurred to me that it was no longer me, the artist, paying a model to sit still and pose for me, but that now the roles were reversed.”
Harriet’s first major commission was the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, which involved a trip to the Royal Courts of Justice. “This could have been so daunting, but he and his wife treated me with such kindness and patience which really helped me to trust in myself and to build my confidence. He wore his chain of honour for the portrait, which normally only comes out twice a year for the Queen!”
Harriet has also painted the Bishop of East Anglia (this portrait now hangs in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich), and the Treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn, which resulted in her being invited as a guest of honour at the top table of a white tie dinner along with 200 barristers.
“More recently I painted a family portrait for the author Anthony Horowitz,” she says. “It was great fun to work with a big name. They were up for something different from the usual formal portrait which meant I was able to experiment, creating a contemporary take on my old masters training.
“I also enjoyed adding personal, fun touches like part of a hand-written script for the Moriarty series of Sherlock Holmes lying on the desk, a little Spitfire aeroplane as a nod to the Foyles War series which Horowitz also wrote, and a poster of Alex Rider on the back wall.”
Looking at the variety of her commissions it is easy to see how Harriet is able to adapt her formal training to meet her clients’ needs. And yet, as she explains, regardless of who she is painting, the thought process remains unchanged: “With the Horowitz painting, which was in his studio, I used a strong sense of perspective,” she says. “As I was growing up I was influenced by my father’s enormous surrealist paintings, and this particular commission enabled me to play around with putting people into a space.”
As well as her father’s work, Harriet has been inspired by many of the great traditional artists from history. “I especially admire Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Singer Sargent, Rubens, Reynolds, Van Dyke, all the classical, English School. I also like De Lazlo as I can relate to his attitude and interaction with the sitter, and I have recently discovered Sorolla, a Spanish artist who uses a similar technique to Sargent,” she says.
People are aware of things being so disposable that they are now looking for something which will still be appreciated in years to come
While under pressure to depict the sitter as accurately as possible, it is unsurprising that Harriet has been asked to remove the odd wrinkle or straighten a nose. “Sometimes they do get me confused with a plastic surgeon,” she laughs, “but I tell them they would have to pay extra!
“My training lends itself naturally to seeing the beauty of people. Even if a client comes in with insecurities or doesn’t conform to their idea of good looking, it is these things that give them their character.”
Harriet’s clients come from a range of backgrounds and professions. “I have recently been working with a very old English family who have several of my portraits hanging in their home just outside Bath where their ancestors have lived for 600 years,” she says. “I am currently finishing a portrait of their teenage daughter. They have been working with me as a team, enjoying the process, and creating a special experience for us all.”
When she isn’t working on portraiture, Harriet uses her artistic talents in her every day life. “I paint still life as I find it quite therapeutic. I have designed a Christmas card for the Holburne Museum and some fun illustrations for clients’ dinner place name settings. I am always looking for new opportunities and am ready for a challenge.”
Speaking of which, Harriet’s flatmate surprised her by entering her into the Channel 4 show First Dates in 2017: “I went along with it and appeared on the show. I turned up with a portrait for Fred, the maître d’ – it was great fun, but I got more out of it in the way of finding commissions than finding the love of my life,” she laughs.
With the demand for portraiture coming back into fashion, Harriet is leading the way in continuing Bath’s tradition of honing portraitists, helping to capture moments in time for families and individuals to treasure for generations to come.
Harriet is running monthly portrait drawing demonstrations at Victoria Art Gallery until May. To find out more about her work, visit: harrietdahanbouchard.co.uk