The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled a newly commissioned portrait of children’s writer Julia Donaldson, on her last day as Children’s Laureate, 3 June 2013.
Revealing her ‘props cupboard’ at home, a small room next to the one in which she writes, the children’s author is shown sitting in the foreground of a large portrait, holding a note book and pencil and surrounded floor to ceiling by props from her books, including The Gruffalo, Room on The Broom and The Highway Rat. These are items which she uses in the shows she performs, though in the portrait they are only seen as tantalising glimpses, as if into the writer’s imagination.
Donaldson sits forward as if writing her next story to a young audience, the mystery of its contents reflected in unseen props in bags and boxes. Artist and teacher Peter Monkman, 49, has described the colourful and intriguing background of his portrait as a ‘fictional’ space, reflecting what he sees as ‘the magical, youthful nature of Donaldson’s personality’.
Among the partly discernible objects on the shelves behind the writer are the head of The Highway Rat, the purple-prickled back of The Gruffalo, the paws of the mole from The Rhyming Rabbit, the witch’s bow from Room on the Broom and the tail of The Singing Mermaid. Donaldson’s story of Tiddler, The Story-telling Fish, is represented by a shoal of fish which the artists says also reflects the shimmering blue in Julia’s eyes.
Monkman was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, with the support of BP, to paint the oil-on-canvas work for the Gallery’s permanent Collection as part of winning the first prize in the BP Portrait Award 2009.
The first sitting took place at Donaldson’s family home in Glasgow in July 2012. During the two-day visit he produced sketches and took photographs, laying the groundwork for a second session when Donaldson visited Monkman at his studio in Godalming, Surrey, near Charterhouse School where he teaches.
Other than as a teenager when she and her friends would sketch each other, this is Julia Donaldson’s first portrait sitting. ‘I was relieved that Peter’s portrait of me was not unflattering!’ she says, ‘I feel I come over as quite warm and sympathetic, and I like the way the background gives some clues to my story writing and imagination (as do the pencil and notebook in my hands.)’
Julia Donaldson, 64, grew up in Hampstead, North London, and studied Drama and French at the University of Bristol. Prior to becoming an author she worked as an editor and an English teacher. From 1974 Donaldson wrote songs for BBC Children’s Television, which featured on programmes such as Play Away. With her husband Malcolm, Donaldson continued to pursue her interest in drama and music, writing and performing children’s plays and singing in folk clubs. Her first book, A Squash and a Squeeze (1993) featured illustrations by German artist Axel Scheffler, her long-time collaborator, who also illustrated the book for which Donaldson is best known The Gruffalo (1999).
She is the recipient of numerous awards and in 2011 was appointed Children’s Laureate, a two-year tenure which ends 4 June 2013. In that role Donaldson has campaigned against the budget cuts and closures facing public libraries. She toured to over 50 libraries across Britain, listening to, and participating in, children’s performances. As well as collaborating with numerous illustrators and writing the Princess Mirror-Belle young fiction titles, Donaldson has also written a teenage novel, Running on the Cracks, which was recently dramatised, and during her laureateship she published a series of Plays To Read and an anthology of Poems to Perform for primary classrooms. She is a patron of the charity Artlink Central.
Peter Monkman won first prize in the BP Portrait Award 2009, having previously been included in the exhibition in 1999, 2001 and 2003. Director of Art at Charterhouse School, Surrey, Monkman studied at the University of Lancaster, John Moores University, Liverpool, and the University of London. His winning painting was one of a series of portraits of his daughter that explored the concept of the changeling, a child substituted for another by stealth. The subject of childhood continues to be a feature of Monkman’s work and in the Julia Donaldson portrait an echo of the Changeling is found in his representation of a disembodied head with staring eyes, reflecting his fascination with a darker side to childhood.
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘In painting a new portrait of Julia Donaldson, Peter Monkman has created a wonderful sense of Julia’s brilliant imagination, which will delight our visitors, young and old. I am very grateful to BP for making this possible.’
Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP, says: ‘We are thrilled to have been given the opportunity to support this wonderful commissioned portrait of Julia Donaldson. Like many others I am a huge admirer of her work and BP Portrait Award winner Peter Monkman has brought his characteristic ethereal qualities and inventiveness to a portrait which will no doubt be hugely popular with visitors.’
Peter Monkman’s portrait of Julia Donaldson was commissioned by the Gallery’s Trustees and made possible by BP as part of the First Prize, BP Portrait Award, 2009. Gallery commissions supported by BP include Dame Kelly Holmes by Craig Wylie, Sir Paul Smith by James Lloyd, Sir Mike Jackson by Brendan Kelly, J K Rowling by Stuart Pearson Wright, Dame Cicely Saunders by Catherine Goodman, Dame Camila Batmanghelidjh by Dean Marsh and Sir V S Naipaul by Paul Emsley.
Julia Donaldson by Peter Monkman is in Room 35 in the Ground floor Lerner Contemporary Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery