“I think portraiture or the painting of people is always an act of trying to do the impossible – imagining your way into somebody else,” says the artist Chantal Joffe, seated in her rag-strewn, warmly oil-scented studio near the Regent’s Canal in Islington.
Against every wall are stacked paintings of people, the abutting edges of the canvases forming ridged, mountainous landscapes. Complex, thoughtful faces peep out at us from every richly coloured surface. Over the course of almost 30 years’ painting, the people Joffe has imagined her way into have ranged from her close friend and fellow artist Ishbel Myerscough, through porn stars, to poets she loved – Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath – to her daughter Esme, and other family members.
As a student in Glasgow in the early 1990s I knew Joffe in passing. She had already left the art school then, and must have been en route to postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art in London: even at that stage she was known as considerable talent, an artist of note. She and Myerscough once painted me, naked and in the bath. (Myerscough recently unearthed a drawing from our session – I look rather cross. I had forgotten to put money in the meter in time for the boiler to heat up, so was sitting in a chilly puddle.)
Image: Portrait of Chantal Joffe in her London studio
Photography: Thierry Bal