If the eyes are the window to the soul, then Alexander Talbot Rice’s eyes betray a ravenous soul, his gaze absorbing every detail around him. Talbot Rice’s gaze has recently fallen on Hong Kong, where he is undertaking a project for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Through his skill as a raconteur, the British artist illustrates why his talent for portraiture is so sought after by royalty and leading figures in the worlds of religion, the arts, business and politics.
In an age of instant gratification, painting society portraits may seem a quaint occupation, and sitting for them a touch idiosyncratic. Why sit for hours to have one’s picture painted when a mobile phone can snap scores of selfies in a few minutes? Why seek to show the world one’s best side, represented in slow-drying paint, in an era when authenticity, as conveyed instantly by reality television, is most prized? “At this moment in history, when our ability to communicate is easier than ever before, so many of us feel so disconnected from one another,” says Talbot Rice. “One of the roles that art has is to bridge that gap. A lot of us artists still live in that world that is disconnected from modern technology.”
Talbot Rice gained his status in the world of art in a manner at once classical and romantic. An art teacher stoked Talbot Rice’s interest in painting and, after university, the painter moved to Italy to study art. There he attended the Florence Academy of Art by day and slept in a church at night. While in Florence, his work on a war memorial for soldiers killed in the Allied liberation of the city during the Second World War brought him in contact with a Florentine princess. The princess invited Talbot Rice to be artist-in-residence in her palace and he readily abandoned his austere sleeping quarters for something rather grander.
His gumption took him to Russia, where he studied at the Repin Institute of Arts in the former Russian Academy of Arts building in St Petersburg. “I had heard about this art institute in St Petersburg, which has an almost mythical status for artists, and everyone at the time was talking about art at the Repin academy, but no one had been there,” he says. “So I thought I would go there and learn.”
He went straight to the director of the academy and asked to enrol. The director asked him which of the masters he would like to study. “I said, ‘Well, can I see their work please?’ ” Talbot Rice says. “I had no idea how arrogant I was being.” But his brazenness gained him admission to the academy.