Women and children were John Strevens’ favourite subjects for his paintings, as they enabled him to ‘express his essentially romantic and idealistic outlook on life…’ (Dr T. Zamparelli, in his biography, John Strevens)
John Strevens’ reputation as a portrait painter grew from the late 1940s when his first major group portrait of the Meyer family won an honourable mention at the 1947 Paris Salon.
Strevens always preferred to paint directly from the sitter, rather than from photographs given that the camera lens, as he put it, has its own focus and tendency to distort.
His youngest daughter Bridget who, like many of his family and friends, posed for many portraits throughout her childhood, recalls how he would begin ‘by putting the sitter at his or her ease, on the look-out for some characteristic gesture or position that they would fall into when relaxed. This he would map out in broad brush strokes, laying out the basic shape of the body, the oval of the face, the positioning of the hands which reveal so much of the character. Progressing from broad generalities to details, from mid-tones to darks and finally to highlights, he worked with rapidity in the manner of Velasquez and John Singer Sargent, to capture the spirit and vitality of the sitter’.
Looking back, Strevens would laugh that it was not until women’s fashions in the 1930s, become more feminine that he married his first wife Janie.
Inspired by the work of Velasquez and John Singer Sargent, he then embarked on more ambitious commissioned portraits of women and children, often in satin or chiffon evening gowns. It was not a big step to make from these society portraits, to paintings of his own children dressing up, such as ‘The Three Princesses’ to imagined scenes of women in costume. Having painted his family so often, they could serve as models or as inspiration, without the need for them to pose.
Among many well-known personalities Strevens painted during his long career, such as Winston Churchill, Princess Elizabeth the future Queen) and later the young actress Laura Dern, some like the great guitarist Julian Bream and Ida Presti and the English soprano Elizabeth Harwood became good friends. A portrait of Betsy Campbell, standing in her débutant’s gown outside Buckingham Palace, commissioned by her father a US doctor of the early NASA astronauts, led to his first trip in the early 1960s, to the USA, accompanied by his wife Julia and young daughter Bridget to do other portraits of wives and children of the NASA community in Texas.
Strevens always painted portrait commissions on a ‘sale or return’ basis. He often mused about the ‘ordeal by relations’ when he would show the portrait for the first time to the sitter and family. On one occasion a portrait was unveiled at a party to reveal that sitter had changed her hair colour from brunette to blonde, although to Strevens’ relief, no one seemed to notice. Even at 80 he still travelled to the USA with his art gear to undertake the odd commission. His 1981 portrait of the young actress Laura Dern captures a fresh yet vulnerable gaze which the director David Lynch was later to immortilise in film.
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