by Alexander Debenham
Painting Bishop Geoffrey Rowell was a hugely enjoyable experience, and rarely have I encountered a composition so full of symbolism and meaning.
Every portrait requires a great degree of collaboration with the sitter, and on first meeting Bishop Geoffrey I was greatly impressed by how much thought he had invested in the project. He wanted to convey a cheerful demeanour, but without compromising the seriousness of what he considered a theological portrait. This was quite a tall order, and it took some wrestling with the mouth and eyes to get the expression right.
There were also a number of secondary items that Geoffrey wanted included in the composition. As a general rule, I try to keep the focus on these suppressed, but I am guilty of allowing myself to represent the icon and the pectoral cross in rather a lot of detail. Complicated positioning meant the hands were especially difficult and took up almost an entire sitting in early May. The vestments shown were chosen after a good hour of deliberation. Not only do they represent the Bishop’s connection to the East, but they were also remarkably complementary to the overall palette of scarlet, cream and gold. I took inspiration from Philip de László’s portrait of Archbishop Lang regarding the placement of the mitre.
In designing the portrait, I hoped to create a strong lighting effect, with the greatest illumination falling on the face itself. To help achieve this, a cloth was hung a few feet away from the Bishop to cast a shadow over the entire lower half of his body. We worked under a single south-facing skylight, shutting out light from all other windows. Southern light is atypical in portraiture, and meant changeable conditions, especially on sunny days. As much as I hoped for overcast weather, we had bright Spring sunshine on all seven sittings. Indeed, I started to believe Geoffrey’s claim that Chichester sits in its own microclimate. Despite this, the brilliance of the light created a real drama in the room. As the work unfolded, the symbolism of the Bishop looking to the light in contemplation became central to the portrait as a whole.
Looking back, I have very fond memories of my experience. Bishop Geoffrey was always a warm and generous host. As I worked, he talked extensively about his life and his astonishingly wide travels. I am indebted to Christine Hall, who was invariably present at sittings and who prepared such excellent lunchtime feasts, which the three of us always took in the garden room. Strong coffee was required to keep both artist and sitter alert in the afternoon sittings, as Christine’s dogs slept next to the easel. Despite poor health in what were to be the final months of his life, the Bishop was always in good spirits and optimistic. I hope that those who look upon the portrait in the future will feel some semblance of Geoffrey’s mind as he looked up towards the light.