Cool and Charismatic: Portraits by Peter Hallam at Edinburgh’s Heriot Gallery

Peter Hallam, 'The Family', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, 'The Family', oil on canvas

Symposia: Peter Hallam - Recent Paintings

Mon - Fri 10:00 - 17:00, Sat 10:00 - 16:00, or by appointment

From: 16 Jun 2022

To: 16 Jul 2022

Heriot Gallery
20a Dundas St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Symposium: a conference to discuss a particular subject, or a convivial drinking party, as held in ancient Greece.

Peter Hallan, 'The Cake Maker', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘The Cake Maker’, oil on canvas

Visiting the Heriot Gallery to view Peter Hallam’s quirky collection of portraits, it’s rather like attending a cocktail party with an intriguing group of elegant guests. I wonder what the topic of convivial conversation would be between the curly bob-haired, Cake Maker in her prim red frock, and the sallow faced, wide-eyed Translucent Man?

Peter Hallam, 'Transclucent Man', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘Transclucent Man’, oil on canvas

What is most inspiring about these colourfully enigmatic characters is the fact they are drawn from Peter Hallam’s richly inventive imagination: elements of these portraits may be tentatively based on observing people he has met or just seen on his travels, although he does not work from photographs.

The titles also add a dramatic narrative to help us delve beneath the sombre expressions, such as By the Light of the Silvery Moon, borrowed from the romantic ballad (Bing Crosby, Doris Day et al.). His neat hair, crisp white shirt, tailored jacket and Tiffany blue eyes presents an air of charm and gentility. The rosy glow backdrop could reflect the moonlight as he sets off for a night on the town.

Peter Hallam, 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’, oil on canvas

He might get on well with the cool and composed, Lady Pearl – dark Frida Kahlo eyebrows, flicked up hair and slightly pursed, red stained lips – reminiscent of Lady Penelope, the aristocratic socialite and secret agent of the 1960s TV series.

Peter Hallam, 'Lady Pearl', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘Lady Pearl’, oil on canvas

As well as the charismatic Lady Pearl, in search of love and adventure, you could also envisage The Family being able to step out of the frame and take part in an animated movie. Posing stoically for the artist, or a selfie photo, there’s a tangible sense of movement here, as the mother leans over to whisper in her husband’s ear.

Peter Hallam, 'The Family', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘The Family’, oil on canvas

Facial features, physical gesture and sombre expressions all hint at the hidden emotions behind these thoughtful, theatrical and humorous characters. While not based on the likeness of real people, through gentle parody they illustrate a subtle sense of human empathy and compassion.   

Here is a sandy haired and soulful image of Mr Sandman – presumably the folktale figure who encourages children to sleep and inspire beautiful dreams by sprinkling magical sand onto their eyes.

Peter Hallam, 'Mr Sandman', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘Mr Sandman’, oil on canvas

‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal.’ – Pablo Picasso

Picasso was enthralled by seeing ‘Madame Moitessier’ (1846) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres at a Paris exhibition in 1921 and in homage to Ingres, he later painted ‘Woman with a Book’, (1932). The model was Picasso’s young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who mimics Moitessier’s distinctive gracious pose, holding a book instead of a fan.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 'Madame Moitessier', Pablo Picasso, 'Woman with a Book'
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, ‘Madame Moitessier’, Pablo Picasso, ‘Woman with a Book’

Andy Warhol created his first portrait of Marilyn Monroe soon after she died in August 1962, copying a publicity photo for her 1953 film Niagara. One particular version of the duplicated series, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ (1964) was purchased for $195 million in May 2022, the most expensive artwork by an American artist ever sold at auction.

Andy Warhol, 'Shot Sage Blue Marilyn', screenprint
Andy Warhol, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’, screenprint

For this silk screen portrait, Warhol transformed the iconic face of the actress with a pink face, blue eye shadow and red lips against a sage background. With a masterly brushstroke, (and a touch of Warhol-esque Pop artistry), a few of Hallam’s characters share the magnetic Marilyn look. In his vibrant pink jacket, here is a debonair gentleman, Strolling through the Streets of Paris: with a slender, elegant face, his translucent grape-green eyes sparkle with light and joy, enhanced by the turquoise sheen, slicked over his eyelids.

Peter Hallam, 'Strolling Through the Streets of Paris', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘Strolling Through the Streets of Paris’, oil on canvas

And finally, The Victorian Gentleman is a most suitable guest to be part of this collection at the Heriot Gallery. With his slender, boyish good looks, he resembles the 19th century novelist, poet and traveller Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived nearby on Heriot Row, often sporting a velvet jacket as the dapper dandy around town.    

Peter Hallam, 'The Victorian Gentleman', oil on canvas
Peter Hallam, ‘The Victorian Gentleman’, oil on canvas

Pop Art (Paolozzi, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Hockney) was influenced by advertising, fashion, TV, movies, cartoons and comic strips. Blending vintage glamour, romanticism and wit, Peter Hallam has now created his own original aesthetic vision to re-invent the eclectic genre of modern portraiture.

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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