Portrait Artist of the Year honours Alan Cumming

Cumming (r) and artist Christian Hook in front of the painting. Picture: Contributed
Cumming (r) and artist Christian Hook in front of the painting. Picture: Contributed
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HE is one of Scotland’s biggest stars of stage and screen, who rose from the stages of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to become the toast of Hollywood and Broadway.

Now Alan Cumming has been immortalised in one of Scotland’s flagship art galleries - striking a flamboyant pose, and semi-naked save for a kilt draped around him.

The painting itself. Picture: Contributed

The painting itself. Picture: Contributed

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The Aberfeldy-born actor, who flew in to Edinburgh from his home in New York to unveil the painting, described its hanging in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as “the biggest honour” of his life.

The painting of Cumming, whose pose is said to imitate Marilyn Monroe, was created by Gibraltar-born artist Christian Hook as his prize for winning a TV series to find the UK’s “Portrait Artist of the Year”.

And early next year the portrait - which Cook painted over two and a half weeks after a series of unorthodox sittings with Cumming in New York - will be replacing a new photograph of Her Majesty the Queen in the gallery’s famous main hall.

Gallery chiefs - who describe Cumming as an “outstanding and outrageous” acting talent - have been gifted the painting after agreeing to take part in the Sky Arts programme, which reached a climax last night when Hook’s victory was revealed.

The painting features nods to Cumming’s political beliefs as a leading artist in favour of Scottish independence, including the “Yes” tartan his kilt is made of, and lettering on an empty honey jar, which was featured in tribute to his dog, Honey, whose death in the summer was said by the artist to have left him “distraught.”

Cook, 43, who is based in both London and Gibraltar, fought off competition from more than 1600 other artists to win the TV competition, fronted by comic Frank Skinner and broadcaster Joan Bakewell, which saw celebrities sit for portraits in museums and galleries around the UK.

Cook, who painted actress Daniela Nardini at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, also produced portraits of biologist Richard Dawkins, boxer Amir Khan and Lord of the Rings star Sir Ian McKellen before being crowned the winner.

Hook admitted he had no idea who Cumming was when he was told who would be sitting for his winning portrait the day before he flew out to New York, where the actor is starring in Cabaret - the show that shot him to fame on London’s West End and then Broadway in the 1990s.

Instead of formal sittings for the painting, Hook spoke to Cumming at length on stage and in his dressing room at the venue where he is performing, Studio 54, even asking him to sing and dance for him. It took him two and a half weeks to create the work when he was back in London.

Hook said: “They told me Alan Cumming was really famous, but I’m not a great TV or film fan. I didn’t look up anything about him until I got to New York, when I had a day to research him. It was a great surprise.

“I wanted to make it fun for him and informative for me. I wanted to find out the things he loves, the things he hates, and the things that have happened to him, to try to find out who he is.

“Alan is in a Marilyn Monroe kind of pose. Alan is quite serious about sexuality and is really interested in how people perceive it. He’s not wearing anything other than the kilt. It is still Scottish, but it is very different.

“I don’t know what people will make of it. I’ve done my bit now, people can make of it whatever they want. But I think that it truly depicts what he’s like, and that’s the only thing that concerns me.”

Cumming said: “This is the biggest honour I’ve ever had bestowed on me, to have my portrait hung in this amazing hall. I’m so grateful.

“I get asked to do a lot of crazy things. They’re not always successful experiences. When it’s something potentially interesting, artistically inventive and surprising I’m more likely to give it a go.

“Everything that Christian suggested was fun, exciting and even slightly seditious, including the fact I am wearing the official tartan of the ‘Yes’ campaign, so I’m really proud that forever in this great institution there will be a little political statement from me.

“This is the first time I’ve seen the piece, but I just love it. I love that my face is completely me and all around is this fascinating deconstructed thing. I really do feel that my spirit is in this. I am a very sensual person and I relate to things on a very sensual level. He’s also picked up on things that are very important to me. It’s kind of overwhelming.”

Christopher Baker, director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, said: “Fundamentally, the painting is really about performance. It’s a great performer on stage, adopting a very theatrical pose.

“But the artist is also manipulating paint and really making you think about what paint can do. There is a wonderful abstract sense to it as well. It’s a complicated and sophisticated picture.”

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