LONDON (Reuters) - A painting of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, billed as his first official portrait since he rose to power in 1997, will be unveiled in London in March, it was announced on Saturday.
The painting by Jonathan Yeo features a vivid red poppy on Blair’s jacket lapel in what the British artist said was a clear reference to his broadly unpopular decision to back the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The poppy is worn every November to commemorate soldiers who died in battle.
The portrait was commissioned by the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn to which barristers belong. The 54-year-old Blair, who was Labour prime minister from 1997 to 2007, was a barrister before entering politics.
The former leader, now acting as a peace envoy to the Middle East, is depicted looking at the viewer intensely. His face is deeply lined and he wears a pale blue shirt, tie and jacket and a bright red poppy. Blair sat for Yeo in November 2007.
“The fact is that there is no escaping what he’s going to be remembered for,” Yeo told Reuters. “By far the most controversial (thing) will be the wars that he started.
“I tried to think before he came in about how to allude to that in a way that wasn’t contrived, and then he came in wearing a poppy.
“I slightly exaggerated the colour by bringing the rest of the picture down to a more monotone pale blue.”
Yeo, 37, has painted portraits of other prominent public figures, including Prince Philip, actor Dennis Hopper and tycoon Rupert Murdoch.
“Love him or hate him, Blair is an international icon and it’s fantastic to have had the chance to capture him now because he is a figure who will be polarising opinions for generations to come,” Yeo added.
The artist was also commissioned to paint U.S. President George W. Bush in 2007. But after the commission failed to materialise he went ahead and depicted Bush using cuttings from more than 100 pornographic magazines.
Philip Mould, art advisor to the House of Commons and an expert in political portraiture, said it was unusual for a prime minister to refuse to sit for a painting while in power.
“It’s slightly strange to the point of being iconoclastic,” Mould told Reuters.
“Up until Blair there was an incumbent expectation to sit while in office, if only out of respect for history,” he said. “Winston Churchill, for example, sat throughout his life and even during the war on a number of occasions.”
Mould called Yeo’s painting “powerful” and surprisingly introspective for a man seen as obsessed with his public image.