Bryan Organ (born 31 August 1935 in Leicester) is an English artist considered as one of the leading and most innovative British portrait painters of the 20th Century. His paintings have included portraits of prominent public figures and of members of the British Royal Family. Organ is also known for landscape paintings, such as 'St Pancras Station', (Leicester New Walk Museum and Art Gallery), and lithographic studies of animals (Tate). London's National Portrait Gallery holds a total of 16 of his portraits of which 6 were commissioned by the Gallery's Trustees.
Bryan Organ became interested in portraiture in the mid 1960s - a time when the medium was highly unfashionable and largely shunned by any young ambitious artist. For Organ portraiture was not a separate art: 'A portrait is a picture, presenting just the same problems as a still life or a landscape or an abstract. And this is true irrespective of who the sitter is. The solutions may be different, of course, but essentially the end product must be judged as a work of art' [The Illustrated London News, 29/08/70]. In 1971 the National Portrait Gallery Director Roy Strong said: 'In his role as face-maker Bryan Organ emerges as one of the two or three painters of his generation to make any significant statement, let alone display any enthusiasm for the despised art of the portrait'.
Organ's first portrait, painted in 1966, was of the journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge. It was, in Organ's words, 'not commissioned, but done because I wanted to in January 1966. I spent a considerable amount of time with him, observing the way he moves and gestures and speaks. After all, to anyone who has seen Muggeridge on the TV, the image he conjures up is not static, it's in movement all the time. So I made lots of studies and from these made a distillation, retaining recognizable characteristics but eliminating inessentials ... One is simplifying all the time. It's a lot easier to put everything in. The difficult part is seeing how much you can leave out.' [The Illustrated London News, 29/08/70]. At this time Organ also painted the composer Michael Tippett. The portraits of Muggeridge and Tippett (along with a number of studies) were both included in Organ's first exhibition at the Redfern Gallery which took place in March 1967.
Whilst Bryan Organ is best known for his portraits of notable figures and of members of the Royal Family, he has also created a diverse body of work outside this subject. These include his lithographs of birds and animals such as 'Four Birds' (1977), 'Four Heads of Wild Cats' (1974), and 'Monarch of the Glen after Landseer' (1974).
Bryan Organ has painted significant portraits throughout his career, including the official portraits of the last 3 Chancellors of the University of Oxford (Harold Macmillan, Roy Jenkins and Chris Patten). Organ was also the first artist outside of France to be commissioned to paint a French president (François Mitterrand, 1984).
Famous public figures he has painted include Elton John (1973, Acrylic on canvas 152 x 152 cm) and, more recently, Sir David Attenborough (2016, acrylic on canvas 102 x 152). The latter was unveiled by Attenborough at Leicester's New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, in which it hangs next to Organ's portrait of Sir David's brother, Sir Richard Attenborough ('Sir Richard Attenborough', 1985-86)
His portrait of Prince Charles (1980, Acrylic on canvas 118 x 118 cm) was commissioned by the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery in 1980. This was the inaugural work in the Gallery's modern programme of actively commissioning portraits and is the first painted portrait of the Prince to enter the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1980 Organ was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Diana Princess of Wales ('Diana, Princess of Wales', 1981 Acrylic on canvas 178 x 178 cm). She is depicted seated in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. This is the only official portrait of the Princess. Prince Charles and Lady Diana were said to be 'very pleased' with the portrait which was completed and displayed just before their marriage). The paintings of Charles and Diana were described by the National Portrait Gallery's Director John Hayes as 'a breakthrough in royal portraiture', as they showed a sharp contrast to the Gallery's collection of more traditional portraits of kings and queens. Without the adornments of crowns and elegant finery, these paintings offered a 'subtle celebration of the modesty of a modern prince and monarchy' [Tristram Hunt. Extract from Face to Face The Gallery Supporters' Magazine, Issue 16 - Spring 2006]
After its unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery Diana's portrait was slashed by a Northern Irish protester (29 August 1981). Paul Salmon, a Belfast student aged 20, lunged past guards and cut a diagonal slash in the painting which ripped all the way down to the frame, he is quoted as saying 'I did it for Ireland'. Salmon later pleaded guilty to a charge of 'causing criminal damage', was sentenced to 6 months in prison and ordered to pay for the painting’s restoration.
In 1970 Bryan Organ was commissioned to paint a portrait of Princess Margaret ('HRH The Princess Margaret', 1970, Oil on canvas 152.5 x 152 cm) by Lincoln's Inn, where the Princess was Royal Bencher. Organ only agreed to undertake the commission if he was given complete artistic freedom. He is quoted as saying: 'My thought was that royal portraits have stood still for a very long time, that this is 1970 and that it was time to paint a Princess in a way that reflected the age she lived in. So I said yes on the condition that there were no restrictions.' The painting was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in August 1970 to a storm of publicity, in time for the Princess's 40th birthday. The portrait proved highly controversial and was described by the New York Times as 'sombre'. Roy Strong, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, said: 'This is a remarkable moment. This is the first time a member of the Royal Family has agreed to sit for a portrait in the modern idiom. It shows great courage on the part of the Princess. The picture will surprise some people but will be appreciated more in the future.' [The Daily Mail, 21 August 1970]. Margaret herself praised the piece for accurately conveying her way of life.
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