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Octo Pizzo by Tom Croft

Portraits: a picture tells a thousand words

Esther Lafferty on Portraits, a joint exhibition by Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) and Tom Croft
Mark Haddon by Tom Croft

"Art is about entertaining people you’ve never met"

In this world of camera phones and selfies, the portrait harks back to an age when the world was slower-paced, and yet despite the advent of digital photography, having a portrait painted today is still particularly valued as something rather more special.


Part representation and part biography, a portrait is often a way of marking and recording a person’s achievements, or just their presence. Whatever we have or do not have materially, we all have our own look whether it’s a determined mouth, a set of the brow, or unforgettable eyes. A portrait tells a person’s tale without prose.

Sunetra by Mark Haddon


Jericho’s Mark Haddon is best known for his novels, first and foremost The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (which incidentally is marvellous on stage and coming back to Oxford’s New Theatre from 22nd-27th May). In The Curious Incident Haddon captures the essence of a (fictional) young man and builds an engaging story around him, and in his first book of short stories, The Pier Falls, published in paperback in May, he presents both the narrative and the underlying circumstances of each story in only thirty or forty pages.

In Oxford’s Jam Factory this month, there’s a chance to see how Haddon condenses the story of a person yet further and commits them to a single picture, in a joint exhibition of Portraits (paintings and prints) with his friend and fellow artist Tom Croft. Croft was last year’s Oxfordshire Artweeks poster boy, his bright blue eyes peering down from lamppost banners along the approach roads into Oxford. “It’s a self-portrait,” he smiles, “and yet I had several people who didn’t know me ask if they could buy it!”

Croft is a distinguished portrait artist who generally uses oils to pin big names to canvas and board, each portrait taking two to three weeks to complete in his garden studio. “I just love painting,” he laughs, his passion shining through, “there’s nothing more exciting than starting out on a new portrait.”

His recent commissions have included paintings for Manchester United of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, whom he painted from photos from the football club’s archives. “They had hundreds,” he says, “so I was able to use those. Normally I work from a combination of sittings as well as taking lots of photos so that I can see how the light falls on a person in a consistent manner for example. I’m aiming to make the picture exactly like the subject, and capture the personality behind their look as their look will change whilst their personality won’t.”

It is this essence of a person that Croft paints, and he is fascinated by faces and the character and spirit captured in them – in a break from typical portraiture, he increasingly paints pictures that don’t include hands and torsos. He focuses only on the face, deliberately zooming in and capturing the natural way a person presents themselves as if in mid conversation.

This is a markedly different approach to Haddon’s whose portraits are neat and precise, and in which a considered composition is key – this isn’t a surprise as Haddon is not only a talented writer, he has also worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for The New Statesman, The Spectator, Private Eye, The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian. Each of his portraits is a momentary insight into the story of the subject in a single frame, and in that moment you feel as if you understand something of their lives and are intrigued. For example Sunetra although smiling is holding something back and her hands are nervous.

“I’ve been painting, drawing and printmaking for as long as I’ve been writing,” says Mark, “and the one subject I come back to over and over again is human beings. Art is about entertaining people you’ve never met, whether it’s writing or painting or playing the accordion. I need to get these portraits out into the world. I need to hang them on some big white walls and find out whether people I’ve never met love them or hate them.”

In this exhibition expect faces both unknown and recognisable – Oxford ‘personalities’ include the BBC’s Will Gompertz, Loz from Ride and the Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood. From further afield meet, for example, Octopizzo, an awardwinning hip-hop artist from Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, whom Croft painted on a trip to Africa last year. Each has their own story to tell, and I am sure people will love them!

- Esther Lafferty


Portraits runs from 1st March-10th April at The Jam Factory.

For more information on Tom Croft visit thomascroft.co.uk. Tom will be opening his studio for Oxfordshire Artweeks (32 Home Close, Wolvercote, venue 454) from 20th-29th May.


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