Darren Baker is a photo-realistic, figurative artist who has painted portraits of some of the most famous people in the UK, including politicians, sports stars and royalty. He came to national attention for an official portrait he made of the Queen, unveiled at Westminster Abbey in 2011. Baker’s ability to achieve a highly-realistic likeness of almost any subject has made him a go-to artist for the great and the good, including being the official artist for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Following the tragic suicide of his sister Leanne in 2013, Baker has been a committed campaigner for increased awareness around mental health and the need to support the mental well-being of all in society. His latest initiative is a major charity auction, taking place on 3rd October at Kensington Palace, in support of the Leanne Baker Trust and Movember. In the lead-up to the event, Richard Unwin spoke to Darren Baker about his art and the fight for better mental health.
Richard Unwin: The Art & Mind Dinner is organised in support of the Leanne Baker Trust and Movember. Could you explain a little bit about the work the trust does and what its aims are over the next few years? And why have you also chosen to support Movember?
Darren Baker: The trust was set up in memory of my sister, Leanne, who committed suicide six years ago. We resolved as a family to do something positive in her name to help others suffering with mental health issues. The trust primarily raises funds for our partner charity ‘Support2Recovery’ based in Huddersfield. This mental health rehabilitation charity does immense work in the field of art therapy, helping people to express their feelings and talk about their mental health problems
We also do a lot of awareness raising and progressing the conversation about de-stigmatizing mental health. A big aim is to roll-out programmes with NHS mental health, to support hospitals with art and art therapy, which is medically proven to enhance wellbeing and expression, and to bring people into groups. I am already in talks with the CEO of NHS mental health about this H’Art and Mind programme.
Men’s mental health is one of the biggest killers of men in the UK, primarily because of the stigma and difficulties in getting men to talk about their problems without judgement. I think Movember does magnificent work in raising awareness and tackling this critical issue. My artwork takes me into lots of arenas that are male orientated – sport specifically – and I wanted to support a cause that reaches out to men and mental health.
RU: The event will include an auction of artwork in support of the two charities. It looks like you have donations from some very well known artists and famous names, including Banksy, Damian Hirst, David Hockney and Prince Charles. How did you go about sourcing the work?
DB: We have some amazing artwork, from old and modern masters and blue chip contemporary artists to emerging, up-and-coming artists. I have been blown away by the generosity of artists in getting behind this event and what we are trying to achieve.
Over 20 years in the art world I have built up some incredible networks with artists, galleries and collectors. The event would not have been possible without their support and I am so grateful. We are literally turning Kensington Palace into an art gallery for the evening.
RU: You have also been producing a new body of your own work to include in the auction. Addressing the issue of suicide, the pieces are very powerful and hard-hitting, and are probably different in style to what most people associate with your practice. How long have you been working on them for and was the style and content the result of a conscious decision to approach the subject in that way, or did the work develop more organically?
DB: I have been wanting to create pieces on the theme of suicide since Leanne died: something so powerful and hard hitting that will create a conversation point about the true horror of mental health and the consequences when nothing is done or said.
The approach towards prioritising mental health has advanced so much in the last few years, which is great, particularly with the advocacy of the young royals who are amazing in speaking out. But it is still left behind in the hierarchy of conditions that are fatal to people and at the grassroots it is so under-resourced. I don’t want to offend anyone with the work but I really want to help drive the conversation about mental health forward, because too many people are dying and suffering.
RU: You’re well known for the portraits you’ve done of members of the Royal Family. As you mentioned, Princes William and Harry, alongside their wives, have become prominent advocates for the need to give mental health more attention and to remove the stigma attached to it. From your experience at the grassroots level, does it feel like that kind of high profile intervention needs to be matched by more money from government – as well as charitable sources – to fund the kinds of programmes you’ve been talking about?
DB: It is absolutely wonderful that the young royals are so passionate about mental health and raising awareness, and de-stigmatizing it. And it is so encouraging that so many more high profile names and organisations are banging the drum and highlighting the issue of mental health. But at ground level there is still so much more funding and charities needed to match the demand. Accessing services myself I can see how underfunded and under-resourced the NHS and charities are in dealing with this condition – that we all suffer from to some degree. The problem is becoming an epidemic and will only get worse with all the societal and systemic issues that exert pressure and stresses on people. That is why it is vital private individuals step forward and take action, as well as speaking-out, to help improve the situation. I truly believe better mental health will lead to a better society and world and improved ‘wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’.
RU: Moving back to your own work, much of it has been based around portraits of real people, as well as still lifes, cityscapes and equestrian paintings, delivered with a realism that only photography can match. You’ve spoken in previous interviews about how you and your friends and family were aware of your artistic proficiency from an early age. How long did it take to nurture your innate talent to achieve the level of realism that you do, and is a highly realistic reflection of reality the thing that you most strive towards in your art?
DB: Yes, my skills were noticed very early – when I was three to four years old – and it was with the encouragement and confidence gained from the support I received that I really started to develop. In terms of nurturing my ability, I would say every single day of my life since those early years I have been focused on perfecting and achieving this level of realism. A combination of intense practice, study and observation over 40 years has led me to this point. And my art reflects my personality and character: the attention to detail, the need and desire to achieve a finish more real than a photo. And this also reflects my mental health, my perfectionism and need to attain a ‘perfect’ result/finish – a world within my world. However, the world is imperfect, as are humans, and it is acknowledging and dealing with that fact that will better improve one’s life and ‘mental health’.
RU: What’s next for you as an artist, are there any new series or subjects that you’re planning to work on?
DB: In terms of future subjects and themes, I am carrying on pursuing the mental health cause through my art with various depictions highlighting the issues and severity of the condition. It’s all about drawing attention to the subject and getting people talking about real life, and matters that will help people and society. Only by continuing to bang the drum and shocking people into talking and acting will things progress and change for the better.
RU: As we’ve mentioned, you’ve painted a lot of famous people, from royalty to sports stars, is there anyone whose portrait you haven’t painted yet that you would like to if you could?
DB: I have painted a Queen, a future King and two popes. I would be very interested in painting an American president, perhaps Barack Obama. Also the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, because I so admire their advocacy of mental health issues.
The Art & Mind Dinner – organised by Darren Baker in support of the Leanne Baker Trust and Movember – will take place at Kensington Palace, London on 3rd October, 2019. artminddinner.com
All images courtesy of the artist, Darren Baker