Janice K. Johnson

I thought the programme about “Painting Sir Lenny Henry” – the £10,000 National Portrait Gallery Commission of Sir Lenny Henry, painted by the winner of Portrait Artist of the Year 2022 – was one of the best commission episodes ever in the history of the programme

This is a review of that programme and the process of the commission undertaken by Morag Caister – the winner of Portrait Artist of the Year (see Morag Caister wins Portrait Artist of the Year 2022 (Series 9) ).  It will “unveil”

  • the commission
  • the sitter
  • the artist and her process
  • the likeness and the skin
Before the Unveiling

About the Commission

Every year the last episode in each series of the “Portrait Artist of the Year” programmes, made by Storyvault Films and broadcast on Sky Arts, is about the £10,000 Commission awarded to the winning artist.

Interestingly, the NPG has previously displayed a portrait of Sir Lenny Henry – back in 2020 –  as part of the online exhibition on their website for BP Portrait Award 2020. That portrait painting of Sir Lenny Henry in monochrome acrylic paint and graphite was by Martyn Burdon. Interestingly Martyn got to paint Sir Lenny by asking him!  I’m wondering if it was that particular portrait which prompted the thought that the NPG really ought to commission a portrait of him.
As an aside, interestingly, the National Portrait Gallery has a group of what it calls BAME Sitters (i.e. Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic) and I suspect one of the other incentives for this commission was the need to enhance the collection of portraits relating to this group.

Of course – from an artist’s perspective – having a portrait commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery raises an artist’s profile for many years to come as such portraits in the contemporary part of the gallery tend to hang for a long time. Very many professional portrait painters aspire to being commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery because of the number of people who will see their work.

Given the fact the National Portrait Gallery is still working to get to the end of its major transformation process and will not reopen until 2023, the unveiling was at the National Gallery. We won’t be able to see the portrait until the Gallery reopens in 2023.

About The Sitter

People think of Lenny Henry as being “that funny man on the telly” – but he’s so much more than that.

Sir Lenworth George (‘Lenny’) Henry CBE (b.1958 in Dudley in the West Midlands) is very well known. However I’m not sure people generally know all his many different roles he plays as:

  • a comedian – famous for parody of his Afro-Caribbean roots whose comedy TV show on BBC ran for 19 years
  • an actor in later years – appearing in Shakespeare, Broadchurch and films
  • a playwright and author 
  • an academic. For example, did you know (I certainly didn’t!) that Len Henry has been very much involved in higher education over the last 20 years and has been awarded:
    • a BA Hons degree in English Literature from the Open University in 2007
    • an MA in Screenwriting for TV and Film from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2010. 
    • a PhD degree in media arts, from the same institution, on the role of black people in the media in July 2018. His thesis was titled Does the Coach Have to be Black? The Sports Film, Screenwriting and Diversity: A Practice-Based Enquiry 
  • an activist in matters relating to fundraising and cultural identity and diversity in the media.  He is:
    • one of the Founders and a Trustee of Comic Relief, in 1988, which has now raised millions every year for charitable projects and activities in the UK and developing world.
    • a longstanding campaigner for diversity in the media and helps lead the new research centre at Birmingham University – The Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity 
  • Plus he became the Chancellor of Birmingham City University in 2016.

He was knighted in 2015 for services to drama and charity and has received numerous significant awards.

This is his website. I think he might want to consider the use of the word polymath somewhere in it! 😉
Sir Len Henry – at his sitting for the portrait

HOWEVER, he now prefers to be called Len and his persona and activities now tend to be rather different from those which first made him famous.  

Which I think seems to present issues for those who “think they know” what he looks like. He commented in the programme about photographs of him really relating to him performing in the past – rather than the person he is now.

About the Artist

Morag Caister – in a field at the Hay Festival – drawing Len Henry

  • born in 1994 
  • a London based figurative-portrait artist working mostly in oils and (oil?) pastel on paper and calico or raw canvas. 
  • Graduated in BA Painting (2019) from the University of Brighton after studying at Brighton Metropolitan College for her Foundation, Art & Design (2014). 
  • Caister has been shortlisted for awards, participated in competitions and art fairs, and has exhibited in the UK and abroad. 
  • Solo Show: She had her first solo show in Tirana, Albania where she lives part of every year with her Albanian husband. 
  • Portrait Artist of the Year
    • Heat winner and PAOTY semi-finalist in 2020. 
    • Winner of PAOTY in 2022
  • Married in July 2022!

One of the characteristics of ALL of Morag Caister’s paintings is that she ALWAYS drew/painted the whole person – but sometimes minus feet!

self portrait, heat painting and semi final painting
You can see larger versions of the paintings which helped win her the competition in my previous posts

About The Process 

Two words for me characterise the process in this year’s programme – VISCERAL and THOUGHTFUL. Which might seem a contradiction in terms for some but I think they actually represent what happened.

Morag is an emotional painter – she needs to feel her way into a painting and to pick up on the essence of who the person is. To do this she exercises great thought and consideration in practising picking up the outline and getting the weight and balance of the posture right.

Morag Caister’s approach to painting

Morag’s process is slow and thoughtful and all about learning about the person.

She draws her way into a portrait by studying the individual and drawing from life. She starts with small studies – learning the shapes and angles and moves to larger drawings

One small and two large line drawings of Len Henry sat in a field

This is what I said about her process in my last post

Morag has a very particular way of painting. She starts by sketching and feeling her way into how to present the figure on the support. She then spends a very long time on line and outlines – drawing the figure using paint and a brush. The colour goes on fairly fast at the end but tends to be flattish while at the same time respecting the key lines which indicate how the figure is fixed in space.

The background never provides any context. The chair is never shown. Her approach was amazingly consistent from the very first painting to the very last.

In this instance she started by drawing him a gallery and then moved to a field 

capturing Len in a field

before moving back inside for the final sitting – and the very brave start of the final painting. I totally admire Morag for being very brave and capturing that essence of the sitter while he was sat in front of her.

The start of the portrait and the end of the sitting

What is less obvious is how the emotion of the process, the ‘gut feel’ of what is right is also very important to Morag and hence why I referred to her process as visceral. 

About the Painting

The Likeness Issue

“Likeness” has been a feature of this series. It often featured in the decision-making relative to who got shortlisted and who moved forward to the semi-finals and then final.However one might ask “what is a likeness really like?”

the fact or quality of being alike; resemblance.
the semblance, guise, or outward appearance of.
a portrait or representation.

Definitions from Oxford Languages

How is it best achieved?

My personal view if that a likeness is best achieved through study – from life. Rather than by copying a photograph.

It’s one of the reasons that most of the major portrait commissions insist that a portrait must be done with the permission of the sitter i.e. you can’t just copy somebody else’s photograph. 

It also indicates that you’ve met the sitter and got to know them. You know something of the inner being and not just the outer carapace.

Which is why a likeness of a person speaks of their inner being as well as their outer appearance.

The object sitters were asked to bring to the heats can possibly suggest something of that – and there were some interesting choices made, particularly by those who “got” the intended significance of the object.

Morag starting to do an initial drawing before starting the final portrait

In the case of Lenny Henry – DO WE KNOW what he actually looks like? HOW?

We need to bear in mind that most of the times when we have see him 

  • he’s not been in front of us – we can’t see him face to face
  • he’s been performing – so he has his performance face on – which happens to be very agile and flexible – and never stops moving….

At home – sat close to people he knows very well – he can look very different.

The purpose of sittings is to achieve that sense of knowing how a person is, how they hold themselves and how they behave when they’re not performing. That’s what Morag spends so much time looking and studying before she starts – extracting the essence so that her line becomes minimal and also very informative.

The sitter – Zen Len

The Commission: Sir Len Henry

I suggest all those who think that it’s not a good likeness read the following – which came towards the end of the programme.

“It’s Len not Lenny – so that’s the person I see at home. He’s very quiet and quite still. She captured his essence perfectly”
Sharon Henry, his sister

“It’s really soulful and beautiful for me. I love it”
Lisa Makin, Sir Lenny’s partner

“My sister just said ‘that’s you when you’re being you’ and that’s the highest compliment ever really”
Sir Len Henry

Len himself poses an interesting point at the end when he comments that it’s very much a portrait of the adult he is now.

For me, it was when I juxtaposed the image of him sitting with the portrait that it becomes absolutely crystal clear that it is actually an excellent likeness of the man himself – and of a person we’re not used to seeing. 

The Skin

I have a very distinct feeling that the emphasis on looking for somebody who can paint the skin of an Afro-Caribbean man might very well have been something which Lenny Henry emphasised when agreeing to sit for a portrait. He comments during the episode of the effect of light on a brown skin.

Interestingly, the head and face were more well developed in this commission portrait than in any of the paintings Morag had produced previously in the competition. 

I thought she caught the colours wonderfully well

The head of Sir Len Henry
After the unveiling!


It was interesting to see that part of the credits acknowledged the name of the artist for the very first time!

Sky Arts Artist of the Year – REFERENCE

Reviews of Previous 9

This year’s heats are:

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