Brushes with glory

In painting everyone from the Queen to John Diefenbaker, Brenda Bury works to capture her subjects' inner being -- flattery and subservience be damned.

By Josipa Petrunic, Globe and Mail, July 17, 2001

TORONTO -- With one swift motion, Brenda Bury paints an eye. It's only one eye. And it's painted on top of another blob of pinkish paint that has little definition or contour. But already it's undeniable to anyone watching -- the tiny bit of paint on her canvas is on its way to perfectly capturing Bury's model, Ken Lilley, who is posing in the artist's Toronto studio with his wife Doreen.

"That's him," the artist says confidently.

That her subject is recognizable from just one eye seems to prove what Bury has been saying all day: Portraiture is about representing the internal being of an individual, and not just their physical attributes.

Ken's eye is looking toward his wife. Bury has also painted an outline of Ken, who is leaning in to his wife. The artist plans to add their 18-year-old cat, sitting in between them, to the painting. As Bury works away, Doreen marvels that the setup Bury has roughed out depicts perfectly the couple's relationship as "soul mates." Her husband is impressed as well, as he looks up at the image that is starting to emerge. "It's amazing," he says, "how she does that."

It's a comment Bury hears often. She repeatedly gets praise for her ability to paint what can't be seen -- the hidden, internal aspects of the wide array of people who have sat for her.

Portraits by the British-born artist are already hanging in the hallways of Canada's Parliament, in Buckingham Palace, and in the homes of former prime ministers both Canadian and British. One of her more recent portraits -- that of former prime minister John Turner -- was unveiled and hung in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill in May. Bury's other well-known subjects include former prime minister John Diefenbaker, former governor-general Jeanne Sauve, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Toronto Nobel laureate John Polanyi, and the Queen.

But as famous as many of her subjects have been, Bury, who has never had a show in an art gallery, maintains that portrait artistry is not itself about fame, fortune or prestige -- and curators tend to agree. While some Canadian artists have used portraiture as a tool in their work, or have experimented with it in the past, it is rarely a stand-alone specialty anymore.

According to Bury, that's in part because portraiture is about understanding human beings. One of the most intimate, humanistic art forms around, it is meant more for private homes than for public showing, she says.

On a tour of her own home, she eyes the various paintings leaning against odd pieces of furniture, while talking about the antiglobalization movement, the Balkans, human rights and apartheid, among other topics of international import. She needs to keep a keen eye on world affairs, she says. After all, political clashes and social upheavals are the products and destroyers of the subjects she paints.

She says thinking about human rights or, for example, the recent war-crimes trials in the Hague, helps her develop an understanding of how people relate to their society. Her goal, she says, is to express and record that relationship through the strokes of her paintbrush.

Indeed, Bury suggests her work is nothing less than the art of perfecting humanity by immortalizing it in paintings, even when the subjects are regular people like Ken and his wife. It's a serious approach to her craft, evidenced in part by the fact that she only works with human models -- never from photographs.

"A photograph is very good at capturing a moment. But it doesn't last," she says. "You work from life. You recreate a whole person. And that is the only image that is going to last forever.

"I think when people work from photographs, they are doing graphic art," she says. Portraiture, she contends, is one of the fine arts.

"Lots of people can paint well. But there's a special gift you need to be able to paint a likeness. In a good portrait, it's not just the image of a person. The person starts to be there. It totally fascinates me to see if I can recreate the human being."

Even if that process, in turn, creates a bit of a dilemma: To truthfully represent a human being at times requires that the artist paint an unbecoming picture. "Many of us don't want other people to know just how ugly we are," she says.

And while nobody wants to look worse in a portrait than they do in real life, Bury notes, most people don't even want their portrait to accurately reflect their appearance. "Oh, make me look better," is, she says, a common refrain from those who sit for her.

The Turner portrait embodies the dilemma well.

"This is what John Turner looks like," says the petite artist, pushing herself to the edge of a two-seater couch. She leans to the left, with one hand propped on her knee and the other tucked onto her right hip. Her head juts forward, as if she's ready to jump from the chair and make some grand announcement. "John is not a calm man," she says. "He never was. He was always ready to move."

And while Bury's portrait of Turner is flattering -- it shows him looking young, thin and robust -- she says it is also highly realistic. The stance she depicted in it, many critics have suggested, aptly captures how Turner looked during his brief tenure as prime minister: always on the cusp, says Bury, of making a decision.

"In a portrait, you are trying to get the pose that is most typical of the sitter. That is, if you took the head out of the picture, people would still know who it is," she says. "I once had a man say, `That's not a painting of me. That's me.' It's about seeing the person, even though most people don't really want to be seen."

Bury's approach is not new. According to Martha Kelleher, an assistant curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, it belongs to a centuries-long tradition of portraiture that views itself as the art of human interpretation. She points to 17th-century Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck as the first major artist to portray the personalities -- and not just the physical characteristics -- of his subjects in his art. In so doing, says Kelleher, Van Dyck "revolutionized portraiture."

Van Dyck was followed by others, including English painter Joshua Reynolds, who aimed to make portraits both symbolic and powerful, rather than merely representational.

Bury's own interpretive process can make for hectic days. She answers the telephone in a frenzied rush. She can't think straight, she says, because she's been preparing all day for a sitting. "I've been eating steak, resting, walking, thinking about it."

It takes all her energy, she claims, to figure out how she will depict her models, what she wants to accentuate about them, and whether it will be a truthful representation of their inner being. "A minute before and a minute after," she says, "I'm shaking all over."

Many of her subjects feel the effort pays off. "I myself have had the privilege of sitting for Brenda Bury," said Carolyn Bennett, Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of St. Paul's. "I will never forget the magic and amazement the first time I saw my likeness revealed on the canvas."

Bury's talent isn't all by chance. The artist graduated with an honours degree in fine art from the University of Reading, west of London. She travelled to Canada for a short time to gain experience -- it was then that she painted Diefenbaker -- but soon made her way back to her home country where she found more opportunity to study her art.

"I knew I would not improve if I did not have good models to work from," she says. In England, she recalls seeing portraits by Van Dyck, Reynolds and Rubens hanging everywhere.

Bury returned to Canada in the 1980s. Today, she works from her Toronto studio, situated across the street from the Art Gallery of Ontario, and a stone's throw from Chinatown. She says her small location suits her aspirations; she has no desire to be another Van Dyck or Rubens.

But considering the artist gets anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 for a portrait (the Canadian government paid $30,000 for the Turner portrait), she's not doing poorly, either.

"A portrait is one human being's perception of another. I can do other things," she says, referring to landscapes and still lifes. "But this truly fascinates me.... This is what I have a gift for."

Return to Brenda Bury's home page
Contact Brenda Bury