Jonathan Yeo has faced considerable adversity to become the eminent portrait painter of his generation. His representative works are often controversial depictions of willing subjects. Jonathan believes this direction is verified by the proliferation of photography; in a 2011 interview with The Guardian newspaper he said "if you paint a portrait and it's massively flattering, the artist is going to look as if they are not doing their job properly – and the subject is going to look like they are on a vanity trip. If you are after a truth from a portrait, you want it to do something a photo can't. A painting has to have a sense of time passing in it. A photo captures a moment. A painting can't compete with that. At the same time, a photo can't compete with the assimilation of information that a painter does".
Further bravura use of collage, and unorthodox subject matter such as patients undergoing cosmetic surgery, have sealed Jonathan's position as one of the most resonant British artists, let alone portrait painters, working today.
Born in 1970, Jonathan is entirely self-taught, having taken up painting during a lengthy and painful recovery from Hodgkin's disease in his early 20s. He himself has pointed out in newspaper interviews that portrait painting was considered highly unfashionable when he began work in the late 1990s.
Jonathan's first major project was as official portrait painter of the 2001 British general election, commissioned by the House of Commons itself. Proportional Representation (2001), a triptych of the three major political party leaders at the time, caused considerable controversy by representing them in sizes according to their popularity. His commissions began to gather force, leading to a catholic mix of sittings with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, actress Minnie Driver and artist Grayson Perry, among many other significant figures. During this period Jonathan became one of only three artists asked to paint a portrait by noted artistic patron Dennis Potter, the others being Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel. In 2005 Jonathan's portrait of androgynous supermodel Erin O'Connor was used to promote London's National Portrait Gallery. A famous 2008 portrait of Tony Blair shows the former prime minister and incumbent (during the Iraq War) looking world-weary and wearing a poppy flower, a traditional tribute to British soldiers killed in battle.
It was due to a cancelled commission from US presidential incumbent George W Bush that Jonathan began working with Lazarides in 2008. Perturbed by the notorious leader's change of heart, the artist produced a large close-up of Bush Jr's face assembled entirely from clippings cut from hardcore pornographic magazines. The work was unveiled in the window of Lazarides' Soho in London. Thus began Jonathan's acclaimed Blue Period of similar works that pay tribute to the artist's talent – a grave indicator of his considerable talent and mastery of the form. Jonathan has said that he was compelled into the project after fathering two young girls, consequently noting the proliferation of sexualised imagery in Western culture. Other subjects covered in the Blue Period included public virgin and well-established pop singer Cliff Richard; morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse; actor and former "Gubernator" of California Arnold Schwarzenegger (for whom Jonathan used gay pornography); Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and portrait painter Lucien Freud, in what was seen as a tongue-in-cheek passing of the torch between generations. Blue Period was followed up with Porn in the USA (2010), a Los Angeles exhibition organised by Lazarides featuring new collages of golfer Tiger Woods, populist politician Sarah Palin, heiress Paris Hilton and psychologist Sigmund Freud.
Jonathan's next major exhibition at Lazarides was December 2012's You're Only Young Twice. It featured members of the public undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures, mostly facelifts and female breast adjustments. He said in The Guardian: "Three hundred years ago, the portrait painter's job was to take people who looked a bit strange and fit them into a mould. That's why all Gainsborough's portraits look pretty similar. Nowadays you don't have to do that: if anyone wants to look like [enhanced UK mainstream glamour model] Jordan, they can". He has also pointed out in the accompanying book of the exhibition that, as a craftsman who effectively works with faces, both the anatomy of the patients beneath their skins, and the surgeon's work, were fascinating to him. Moreover, the patients were likely to be in a similar demographic to his regular sitters. The artist has stressed that he makes no moral judgement regarding the phenomenon of plastic surgery, but he told The New Scientist, "it's slightly odd that we can change our bodies to look like whatever celebrity is popular at the moment," adding "I prefer old faces, where you can see the narratives of their lives written into the lines of their face".
Many of the works featured a background grid, used by some painters in the fundamental stages of a piece, lending a 'work in progress' feel. You're Only Young Twice (2011) was widely lauded and once again saw Jonathan breaking free from the stereotype of a society portrait painter.
Jonathan has painted Prince Philip, husband to the Queen of Great Britain, and it is widely rumoured that the Queen has commissioned the artist to paint much-loved naturalist broadcaster Sir David Attenborough for the Royal Collection. A portrait of the actress Sienna Miller in the bloom of pregnancy was unveiled in late 2012 and a work depicting Old Vic theatre director and actor Kevin Spacey made newspaper headlines in May 2013.
Jonathan Yeo still works in London but has recently moved to the studio once occupied by sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. He is the curator of Soho House's extensive art collection. His portraits of Rupert Murdoch and broadcaster Michael Parkinson (around which the TV channel Sky Arts made a December 2012 documentary) hang in London's National Portrait Gallery.
Yeo's career in the art world has seen him confronting different mediums and themes during the years. Some remarkable events in his career include his 2013 retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which was acclaimed by the critics and the public. The same exhibition then continued in 2014 to the Lowry in Salford and the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. In 2016 he collaborated with Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where he presented a portrait of Kevin Spacey in his role as President Underwood, from the Netflix series House of Cards. Later the same year his largest retrospective to date was exhibited at The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg, Denmark. Within this short time Yeo has managed to become one of the principle figures of painting in Britain.
Born in London 1970
Lives and works in London
Selected Solo Exhibitions
2016 Jonathan Yeo Portraits, The Museum Of National History, Denmark
2015 Exposure, Circle Culture Gallery, Hamburg
2015 Jonathan Yeo Portraits, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
2014 The Print Retrospective, Banksy Print Gallery, London
2014 Jonathan Yeo: Portraits, The Lowry, Manchester
2013 Jonathan Yeo: Portraits, The National Portrait Gallery, London
2012 I Got You Under My Skin, Circle Culture Gallery, Berlin
2011 You're Only Young Twice, Lazarides Rathbone, London
2010 Porn In The USA, Lazarides pop-up, Los Angeles
2008 Blue Period, Lazarides Rathbone, London
Selected Group Exhibitions
2016 Why I want to Fuck Donal Trump, Joshua Liner Gallery, New York
2016 Flesh, York Art Gallery, York
2016 Kevin Spacey as President Underwood, The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC
2016 The Nude in the XXth and XXIst Century, Sotheby’s S2 Gallery, London
2016 The Last of the Tide, The Queens Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, The Black Watch Castle and Museum, Perth
2015 Art Stage Singapore, Marina Bay Sands Convention and Exhibition Centre Singapore
2014 What Marcel Duchamp Taught Me, Fine Art Society, London
2014 Christies's Contemporary Preview, New York
2014 Art14 London, Lazarides, London
2014 Pulp, The Outsiders Newcastle
2013 Art13 London, Lazarides, London
2012 Some People, The Pagan Press, Art Basel, Miami
2012 The British Cut, Cat Street Gallery, Hong Kong
2012 The Crisis Commission, Somerset House, London
2011 The Minotaur, Lazarides pop-up, Old Vic Tunnels, London
2011 National Portrait Gallery, London
2010 Hell's Half Acre, Lazarides pop-up, Old Vic Tunnels, London
2010 Le Salon Du Cercle De La Culture, Berlin
2009 Grifters, Lazarides Rathbone, London
2009 Up Against The Wall, Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, Athens
2009 Grow Up, Lazarides Rathbone, London
2009 The Outsiders, The New Art Gallery, Walsall
2008 The Outsiders New York, Lazarides pop-up, New York
2008 Outsiders, Lazarides Rathbone, London
2008 Contemporary Displays, National Portrait Gallery, London
2007 Santa's Ghetto, Bethlehem
2007 The Naked Portrait, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
2007 BP Portrait Award, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol
2007 Contemporary Displays, National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery
House of Commons