I have no polling stats to support this, but I’d guess if people were invited to choose their favourite art genres in order, portraiture would come pretty near the top. I don’t know about you, but I can only stand the perfectly captured bloom on an Old Master’s ripe plums for a limited amount of time. Self-portraits can keep you gazing for what seems like hours – those late Rembrandts where he stares ahead like an ancient sea captain, trying to decipher through the wheelhouse window the perils of the coming storm which will inevitably engulf him.
Of course, most portraits are done by artists. I had mine done when I was about twelve. My parents were very friendly with a distinguished sculptor who lived in a big house close to Canterbury where they ran the town’s best bookshop. Drink driving hadn’t been invented in those days and convivial evenings were a regular event. Normally the sculptor was working on some huge project which would end up as the focus of some public space, or on the front of an imposing building.
The big projects paid well, but in between things could be a bit lean. It was then that the portraits were painted, giving my parents the chance to help out. My mother went first and for the rest of the time in Canterbury her portrait dominated the bookshop. Dad was next, with his pipe and eyebrows you could rest a fountain pen on. And then there was me. I was shipped out daily to pose in my school blazer and told in no uncertain terms to Keep Still. Of course, I was used to being given unachievable orders by grown-ups, and somehow muddled through, though to this day I really don’t like the outcome.
You’d think that after that experience I wouldn’t force it on anyone else, but I did. My daughter was driven into the wilds of whatever the county is beyond Kidderminster (fish and chips as a bribe) and posed as Alice in Wonderland. I don’t know what she thinks of the portrait. I love it and hope she does.
But that brings me to the nub. Sometimes the sitter absolutely hates his or her portrait. Possibly the most famous instance of this was the Graham Sutherland portrait of Winston Churchill, arguably the most famous person in the world when it was painted.
It was commissioned to commemorate his 80th birthday and revealed at a public ceremony in Westminster (you may remember the episode in The Crown). Churchill made some attempt at a polite response but then bundled it off to Chartwell where it was as safe as Duncan entering the walls of Macbeth’s castle. Lady Spencer-Churchill burnt it, presumably with her husband gazing down from an upper window with spiteful approval. Where did that leave the artist? Not in a good place. It’s probably the thing he is best remembered for.
Which leads me – in slightly shaggy-dog style – to my point. Ghostwriters are asked to do a wide range of things – fiction, business stories, How To manuals – even children’s books. But the majority of our work is devoted to memoirs. Like most people who want a portrait of themselves, most people who want a memoir turn to a professional. It’s the sensible thing to do. We’re good at it. But every book – and every relationship – is different. We work along familiar lines – lengthy interviews, a bit of research, thoughts about how this particular life story should be told – but after all the prep, there has to be a start on the writing.
While a portrait painter can produce a swirl of pencil sketches and keep coming back at where the sitter’s hands should be, we actually have to get it right from the start. And getting it right means making the text sound like the author, the person the book is about and whose name is going to be on the front cover.
It’s a very big moment when you press Send to despatch that first chapter. Have you got it right? Will it sound authentic to the person it’s meant to sound like? It can be a long wait for the reply.
And it’s a very exciting moment when – as happily is usually the case – the reply pops up with a nice array of thanks, expressions of surprise, and general enthusiasm. There’s a long way to go before the final portrait is achieved in book form, but getting that original ‘likeness’ is probably the pivotal part of the whole process. It’s certainly one of the most exciting – for both parties.
You should try it. We await your call.