Nine Minutes with Lorna May Wadsworth

Lorna May Wadsworth is a figurative painter exploring male beauty from a feminine perspective, inverting the art historical paradigm of a male creator and passive female muse. Wadsworth’s re-appropriation of historical motifs surfaces in all facets of her work, particularly when she unveiled her 12 foot altar piece featuring a black Christ flanked by young male models – a contemporary take on Leornardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Here the artist talks to After Nyne Magazine about current projects and participating in this year’s ING Discerning Eye exhibition at Mall Galleries, London.

Lorna, earlier this year you were invited by panelist Nick Ross to exhibit in the 2018 ING Discerning Eye exhibition which opens this month at London’s Mall Galleries. How important is it for you to show in group exhibitions like this, alongside artists working in other mediums?

It’s a nice change. These competition exhibitions are a bit of a lottery as to whether you’ll be shown or not, so to be invited to exhibit a collection of paintings without having to subject one’s ego to the vagaries of the submission process is a lovely thing. I’m represented for portrait commissions by Art Dealer Philip Mould, and have been blessed to be regularly hung alongside van Dyck and Holbein, which is a huge thrill for any artist, at his gallery on Pall Mall. Yet it’s refreshing to be showing some of my other, studio work from the last few years, most of which I’ve never shown before, at this show amongst my peers. I’m really interested as to how the different medias will chime with each other. I’m excited about it being a show of small works, I think it will be very dense and rich as a result.

Pink Christ is one of the works you’ll be showing – is this piece linked to The Last Supper commission?

Yes. I had an idea to do a huge modern interpretation of another visual religious trope, the Kiss of Judas. One of my favourite paintings is the epic Caravaggio The Taking of Christ, and so many artists have portrayed this scene through the centuries.

I made a large scale icon painting. The background is 23 carat gold, and it captures the split second before Judas kisses Jesus in the garden on Gethsemane and thus identifies him to the Roman soldiers for arrest. The faces are just about to touch, the gold zigzagging between their faces like a lightening bolt of tension. I wanted it to be a little ambiguous, like you’re not sure if Judas is about to ‘nut him’ or kiss him, and also by making such a cinematic scale close up, removing all other allusions to the plot and the context, to perhaps engage with and confront some Christians’ troubled acceptance of gay marriage, and I guess gay people full stop. I like to introduce a duality when I tackle religious themes, to make people really think about their beliefs and prejudices.

Anyhow, I needed to recast my Christ, and found this guy, Jamel Gordon-Lynch, on the New Faces board at Models 1 and contacted him on Facebook. He was up for it so did this painting to see if he would make a good Jesus. The crown of thorns in Pink Christ is actually from the Holy Land from a website that was something crazy like It’s real actual sharp thorns – I had to put little blobs of blu-tac on the end of them when I painted it from life.

In Pink Christ and in Sea Scout I and II, you’ve utilised pink and purple hues to depict male subjects? How important is the use of colour in shaping our understanding of gender in these works?

Fluorescent pink started to seep in to my work as a kind of punk variation on the warm red boule you traditionally use underneath gilded gold leaf, so that if the gold scratches or the background shows through it is warm and has depth. One day I thought, ‘what would fluoro pink look like instead’ when I was working on a commission of a Saudi Prince.

I also have explored using fluorescent colours in place of gold as a modern interpretation of an icon painting – the colour glows and silhouettes the subject somewhat, like gold leaf does. The pink is starting to do this in Pink Christ but really gets there with the glowing orange background on the William Orbit painting.

That grey lilac colour is a really good universal ground to paint on in oil, and I believe is similar to one often utilised by John Singer Sargent. It’s neither warm nor cool in tone, so is really good for most paintings.

I’m not aware that I specifically use colours consciously to make a political or sociological point. I paint intuitively, using the nature of my own gaze and response to a subject. I paint to make sense of the world. I will say that I think the nature of the female gaze is different from that of the culturally dominant male gaze. How this manifests itself is I think perhaps for others to analyse.

Another work included in the show is your portrait of musician and record producer William Orbit. Could you tell us a bit about why you chose to frame the subject within a circle as opposed to bleeding the image to the edge of the canvas?

It’s actually on a tondo, so I have painted the entire support. It’s a lovely icon panel from my favourite art shop, AP Fitzpatrick. Orbit is a legendary music producer, so I liked the fact that a tondo alludes to a vinyl record or compact disc. Also a planet. And the O for Orbit, an assonance also echoed with the orange background

Hail Mary, meanwhile depicts a female protagonist. Does this piece offer an alternative commentary to those depicting male sitters?

It’s rarer for me to paint women than men for my own amusement. The sitter, who is descended from Princess Sophie of Bavaria, is very beautiful and works with fine jewellery companies like Faberge and Boucheron. At the time I was also doing a portrait of a direct descendant of Madame du Barry in period costume. As a portrait artist I’m fascinated with modern revisitations to historic honorific portraits, doing this with the blood descendants of those depicted centuries ago make this even more fun for me.

Could you tell us about any other projects you’re working on at the moment. What does 2019 hold for you?

I’m working towards a big retrospective exhibition in Sheffield, where I was born and lived until I was 18, at The Graves Art Gallery, which will open November 2019. I loved growing up in Sheffield and it shaped me enormously, so the chance to go back with a huge show, taking home big pieces I’ve done through my career is pinch myself exciting. I’m planning on doing an art work for the city depicting inspirational women strongly connected to Sheffield.

I’m currently working on a portrait project with Sir Michael Hintze, who has a special place in my heart as he is a major art philanthropist who has helped so many institutions, which is quite epic and keeping me out of mischief.

And I’m really thrilled that Rowan Williams, former Arch Bish, has requested that I paint his Master of Magdelene College Cambridge portrait. I painted him un-commissioned at Lambeth Palace when he was Archbishop just after I left college in 2003. The fact that he remembered me and asked for me now warmed the very cockles of my heart. Lots of lovely paintings to make!

The ING Discerning Eye Exhibition is a show of small works independently selected by six prominent figures from the art world: two artists, two collectors and two critics. 2018 marks 20 years of sponsorship from ING.

A total of 466 works – including paintings, prints, sculptures, drawings and photographs – by 275 artists will be on show from 15 – 25 November 2018 at the Mall Galleries in London. The exhibition celebrates multi-disciplinary and cross-generational creativity, and provides a rare opportunity for emerging artists to show work alongside established practitioners.

Instagram: @ingdiscerningeye #INGDiscEye

IMAGE: Lorna May Wadsworth, Pink Christ, ING Discerning Eye 2018