An artist who often mixes photorealism with abstract and imaginary elements, Thomas Leveritt spent his early childhood in Texas, before attending boarding school in the UK. Continuing a tour of a range of institutional outposts of the British establishment, he went on to study at Cambridge University, after which he was awarded an Amy Scholarship into the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and later a Queen Mother Bar Scholarship to Middle Temple.
A member of the Contemporary British Portrait Painters, Leveritt has a longstanding engagement with portraiture, and has been nominated for the BP Portrait award four times between 1999 and 2020. He has also received the Carroll Medal for Portraiture from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. A writer as well as a visual artist, Leveritt’s 2008 novel, ‘The exchange-rate between love and money’ won the , and the for a first novel.
Included in the 2020 BP Portrait Award exhibition, Leveritt’s painting of his friend Emily Housman, a midwife at James Paget University Hospital in Norfolk, and her hospital colleague, Funmi Tayo, portrays a fleeting and very contemporary moment in a way that alludes to notable depictions in art history. Painted just before the arrival of COVID-19 in the UK, Leveritt has noted how the depicted meeting between Emily and James captures, “a quiet confluence of many different systems: of professional respect, gallows humour, exhaustion, and above all a doomed heroism that knew that failure was inevitable, the only question being how long it could be kept at bay. The spectre of Bawa-Garba (an NHS doctor found guilty of manslaughter in 2015 in a highly contentious and controversial case) hangs over everyone.”
As Leveritt has also commented, the impact of COVID-19 has focused attention on the burden placed on NHS staff, but while applause and recognition is well-warranted, what is really wanted he says, “is decent pay, decent staffing levels, and above all, a decent party in government to reverse the slow dissolution of the NHS.”
With the portrait of Emily and James included as a print in our Portraits for NHS Heroes virtual exhibition, Richard Unwin took the opportunity to talk to Leveritt about his background and how he’s been spending time during lockdown.
Richard Unwin: You’ve experienced some very different places in your life (or perhaps you don’t see them as being so different?) starting from when you were quite young. Has there been a particular period, place or institution that you think has left the biggest imprint on you?
Thomas Leveritt: Yeah, I was pushed into boarding school in North Norfolk when I was a blameless 8-year-old kid from Texas, which came as a shock. I had to change my voice, accent, handwriting, attachment style… my entire personality. It required a total brain rewire, and whoever put in the new wiring didn’t do a very good job.
RU: It also seems clear that you haven’t always spent all of your time painting in a studio, though I imagine that your talent for drawing and visual representation must have been clear from an early age. Was art something you actively did a lot of when you were growing up, and when did you first start to focus in on the way you paint today?
TL: Like a lot of children, I loved to draw, loved to make gun noises while drawing. As a young artist, I had three main areas of inquiry: army battles, knights in shining armour battles, and space battles. Here is a work that investigates the question: what if X-wing fighters saved the day when the US Army was about to be blown up by the NF (Nazi Force)?
Anyway, I squirted out of Cambridge in 97 and at the time when everyone else was going off to work in banks I hit the growth industry of portrait painting. I’d spent my time at uni drawing lecturers and people in the library, so I’d developed a knack for likeness. I started selling portraits at £300 a go. A lot of them weren’t amazing. But you keep plugging away. Paradoxically, one of the most old-school-tie industries is contemporary art — if you haven’t been to art school it’s quite difficult to get a foot in the door — but with portraiture, likeness is a fairly objective benchmark of success, so I was able to use it to establish myself.
RU: Your paintings often have a cinematic quality, as well as a great sense of space, or spatial awareness. Light, particularly sunlight, also plays an important role in setting the mood and focusing attention within the compositions. How does your process tend to work in terms of either first imagining an image, or seeing a scene or vista, that you want to represent, through to developing that into a painting? And do you often make use of photographs as a starting point for your paintings?
TL: I use photographs all the time! I can think of maybe one artist I’ve ever met that doesn’t. You find a subject matter and cut and paste and juxtapose and try to close in on a feeling. I like variable precision: some things very closely painted, others ladeled on. I’m happy to fudge or abstract pretty much any element of a painting, except the light. You absolutely cannot mess with the light scheme: it’s the engine that drives your alternate reality. I find inconsistent light schemes give me an unsatisfying feeling, like looking at a Salvador Dali: you’re like, okay it’s proficient, but do I believe it? Lately I’ve started painting nothing but the light and photographs are invaluable for analysing how light behaves in extreme diffractive / refractive scenarios. It really opens up so many possibilities, once you’re no longer using photography to depict things, but to depict light itself. If there’s a closest point of contact between ultraviolet photography and painting, it’s probably in Rayleigh scattering, the phenomenon by which objects (typically mountains) look bluer with distance.
But I agree with what might be the subtext of your question, that if painters aren’t careful they can find themselves simply transposing photographs onto canvas, which doesn’t seem super pointful. I mean, you are rinsing an image through your own consciousness and execution, which will give it a distinctive feel, but I find if I get too faithful to photography I wring the poetry out, and honestly when I see extremely photorealistic paintings I receive an intense wave of how tedious it must have been to execute. I like intrepid paintings! Which includes not just subject but how it was painted. Fundamentally, if we believe that paintings are special—and we better, because we’re devoting our lives to them!—we believe that the process of painting records something real, something impossible to fake. That can’t be digitized and sold by the million. And ultimately you can’t fake the speed and courage with which you go about a painting: it will always let you know how the painter was feeling. And it’s that ability to record the painter’s spirit (completely irrespective of whatever the painting’s of) that gives paintings their stubborn value, an emotional and therefore financial value, in an increasingly digital world.
RU: How closely related are the ideas and subjects, as well as the mood and feel, that you tackle in your writing and your paintings?
TL: I’m not sure. I’d like to say: not very. I think that the most interesting bit of artistic voice is the part that’s there by accident, in the way that you can’t smell your own smell. Judging by the music I like, I’d guess that my stuff is characterized by moments of euphoria in a basically hostile, minor-key universe. I also think both my writing and painting have suffered from being overthought and overworked. That NHS painting, for example, is absolutely awash in excess cognition that I was unable to strip out. I’m trying to think less, and feel more. The function of a painting, when you rinse away the high concept nonsense, is to give its owner the illusion of company: to blunt the feeling of being surrounded by four walls that don’t care about you one way or the other. Some paintings are cheerful like dogs, others are wistful, like the memory of a former lover, having a nap in the next room. I’d like people to cock their heads at my paintings and think, he was a warm presence on a cold night – and man, he really fucking hated Tories.
RU: How do you currently divide your time between visual art and writing, and has the lockdown impacted your ability and inclination to work?
TL: I don’t write so much these days; I feel like Twitter has it covered. It’s wonderful to watch Twitter – which is to say, other humans’ lived experience – radicalize people. Kids join up in 2012 to follow One Direction and eight years later they’re tearing down statues. There are real problems we’ve got that I don’t think writing fiction is going to address: there’s an enormous mismatch between how much British people want to care for each other and the planet, versus what our political system gives us. At this point, only political action or direct action seem worth the effort. We can go back to novels once the ecosystem has been stabliized. You could say the same for painting, and honestly I don’t have an answer to that. Probably we should all down tools and join Extinction Rebellion.
About the lockdown – I mean, I live in a field in Suffolk! There’s been basically no change to the rhythms of life. I hang out with my chickens, I run round the forest with a neighbour, I swim in the lake. I paint most days. I still have a few other odd projects sizzling away – a documentary about a secret war the British fought in Oman, a script for a movie that will never be made called Jesus in Hell, and I’m still toying around with non-visible imaging, like terahertz or ultraviolet cameras, which are useful for persuading people to put on sunscreen. I like to keep a diversified garden. But I’d rather be painting.
Interview by Richard Unwin.
To learn more about Thomas Leveritt and his work, visit: www.leveritt.com
The Portraits for NHS Heroes virtual exhibition is available to view at The Net Gallery, here.
All images courtesy of the artist, Thomas Leveritt.