A new portrait of one of Britains most successful inventors by artist Julian Opie went on display at the National Portrait Gallery
on Saturday 6 August. The portrait of Sir James Dyson, inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, is the first work by Julian Opie to be commissioned by the Gallery, and is being shown alongside other works by the artist.
The large-scale, head and shoulders portrait depicts Sir James looking out of the canvas beyond the viewer. Opie is known for his highly stylised work involving the reduction of photographs or short films into figurative representations, the human face often characterised by black outlines with flat areas of colour and minimal detail. In more recent works, he has found inspiration in historic portraits, referencing traditional poses, and this new portrait is reminiscent of heroic or poetic portraits of previous centuries, where the sitter is shown at the point of inspiration. Opies distinctive simplification of form is evident in this new portrait but the delineation of features, shadows and highlights has become more complex.
Sir James started developing the cyclonic vacuum cleaner in 1978, sold his first iterations in Japan in 1991 and opened a research centre and factory in Wiltshire in 1993. Dyson vacuum cleaners are now the best selling vacuum cleaner in the UK and are exported to over fifty countries.
Sir James continues to work with a growing team of over 550 engineers and scientists to develop new technology. Recent launches include the Dyson Air Multiplier fan and the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. His charity, the James Dyson Foundation works with schools and universities encouraging young people to pursue careers in engineering, and the annual James Dyson Award challenges young inventors to develop problem solving inventions.
Julian Opie studied at Goldsmiths University of London under Michael Craig-Martin, for whom he briefly worked as an assistant, and he emerged as an influential figure on the British art scene in the 1980s, with a series of painted metal sculptures. Opies work has been exhibited extensively internationally and is held in many public and private collections including the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate, amongst others. Opies iconic four-part portrait of the pop group Blur (2000) is one of the National Portrait Gallerys most popular contemporary portraits and will be on display in Room 40 alongside the new portrait of Sir James. Also on display will be a digital self-portrait of the artist (2005) recently acquired by the Gallery along with a new portrait of Lord Waheed Alli, generously on loan from Lisson Gallery.
Sir James Dyson says: When I visited Julians studio I was astonished by how widely he was experimenting with media and subject. Having been a fan for years, I loved the new direction in his recent portraits with the use of subtle shading and light. It was all very inventive and I felt an immediate affinity. His work duly surprised and delighted me.
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery says: This is a powerful portrait of James Dyson which successfully pairs him with Julian Opie, an artist of international importance who continues to explore new and emerging formats for his work.
Julian Opie says: James Dyson came to my studio discuss the portrait some weeks before the sitting. This gave me a chance to study his face and his expressions, to watch his mannerisms and get an idea of what style might best suit him. He came with the Director of the National Portrait Gallery and looked relatively formal but I sensed that he was more at ease when active. We discussed possible dates and possible outfits. Before the sitting I gathered two groups of images, some of Godfrey Knellers Kit-Kat Club portraits (many of which hang in the National Portrait Gallery) and all my collection of male figure Manga cells from Japanese Anime films. While my photographer shot rapid fire digital shots that loaded directly onto her computer I referred to these printed images laid out on the floor to find good poses, props and lighting. As I suspected, the more lively anime poses and lighting suited Dyson better with casual sailing clothes as an outfit. I asked Dyson to talk to me about his holidays while he posed so that his face was animated, though in the final picture his mouth is closed.
It takes almost as long to choose from the hundreds of photographs taken as it does to actually draw a model. I draw over and under the photo on the computer using a digital pen and a large screen, zooming in and out, adding and subtracting, adjusting, adding and simplifying. The drawing takes a day, fiddling with it takes a couple more. Downstairs I have a state of the art Epsom inkjet printer so I can work closely with an assistant to colour correct seemingly endless proofs on different canvases and with different settings to try to get close to the richness of the screen image. The smooth thick ink and gloss varnish, the metal frame and the canvas all give the object the appearance of a painting while the image hovers between drawing, photograph, film and sign, always trying for realism.