5 Minutes with... Arabella Dorman, Portrait Painter and War Artist
did you first become interested in painting and where did you train?
Drawing, painting, playing with colour, shapes
and form was an obsession from a very early age. I remember winning an art
prize aged eight years old and vowing that when I grew up, “I would be an
artist.” It is something that I have never wavered from. My initial training
was in the art rooms of St Mary’s Calne and Bedales, followed by a Foundation
Course at Byam Shaw School of Art. An apprenticeship with an artist in Africa held me captive
during university years. Edinburgh University gave me an English, Philosophy
& History of Art MBA, but Africa introduced me to the magic of light! Thereafter, I was lucky enough to have
four years at Charles Cecil Atelier in the incredible city of Florence.
portrait have you enjoyed painting most and why?
The Helen Hayes Award winning actor, Ted van
Griethyusen. Many years ago, I went to see Bertoldt Brecht’s play, ‘The Life of
Galileo’ and fell in love with the character of Galileo, played by Ted. I
resolved then and there to write to him and ask whether he might sit, in the
guise of Galileo, for his portrait. To my delight this was met with great
When Ted first walked into
my studio, I knew I was in the presence of a truly great man, a wise and
generous intellect, a teacher and a friend who has changed the way I look at the
world. Painting him was an inspiration, our conversations intoxicating. It was
one of those beautiful moments when literature, theatre, music, painting – in
short, all of the arts - came together.
you try to get to know the sitters well enough so you can capture their
character in their likeness and how do you do this?
To paint a portrait
is to go on a great adventure with another human being. It is a rare privilege
to spend concentrated time with someone outside immediate family, with only
music, conversation and coffee for company! It is a very relaxed process, and I
like to think, really fun, involving much laughter, rich conversation and often,
an emerging friendship as the portrait progresses. To me, portrait painting is
about listening, and about learning someone, and the extraordinary process of
characterisation that emerges through that. Being a portrait artist is about
seeing and being seen, it is about an open responsiveness in working together,
there a difference in painting the portraits of children and adults?
Essentially I approach every person with the same
curious wonder. The joy of being an artist is seeing something as if for the very
first time, every time you pick up a brush. Painting is a celebration of life
and the miracle that is being alive. It is about having the courage to find
connection and meaning, it is about loving one another in all our beauty and sometimes,
in our brokenness. Painting is an exciting, challenging and serious matter to
me, but I try not to take it too seriously!
Above all portrait painting should be fun,
playful, a dynamic exchange of ideas and experiences, no matter how young or
old the sitter. In responding to each person on an individual basis I do of
course adopt very different methods to draw out the soul and inner character. I
adore working with children; their innocence, wide eyed beauty, energy,
creativity and imagination takes my breath away. Likewise though, I am often
stunned by the experience, stories, courage and integrity of so many adults I
have painted. Regardless of the subject therefore, I paint with the same
emotional pallet. It is a very great joy and privilege to get to know someone,
young or old, and to make a friend in this way.
did you become a war artist and why?
I have always been fascinated in the ability of
the still image to tell the human story. Nowhere can you see more of that human
story, the very worst and the very best of what it means to be human today,
than in the theatre of war. War is terrible, devastating, tragic, but it can
also reveal moments of startling beauty, courage, love and sacrifice. My work
is about trying to find those moments of beauty, and about trying to capture
the universal silence beyond the noise of battle, the silence that reveals the posssiblity
of love and hope that lies at the heart of the human soul. In this way, I am
perpetually searching for light in the dark corners of existence.
us about your installations and why you create them.
As a war artist,
my interest lies in the human face of conflict, in the immediate impacts and
long term consequences of war. Having
worked as an officially accredited war artist in Iraq and Afghanistan since
2006, I became increasingly interested in documenting the legacy of those wars,
and the thousands of displaced men, women and children that were fleeing from
Nothing however prepared me for the tragic scenes
that I witnessed in Lesvos in 2015. Over 5,000 people were arriving there a
day, whilst thousands more were lost at sea. In response to this overwhelming
humanitarian crisis, I resolved to highlight the plight of refugees in an
installation artwork called Flight.
This was a rubber dingy that I salvaged from the Aegean sea. It had been found
adrift, with 62 refugees (many of them women and small children) onboard. All
would have drowned had the Coastguard not come to their aid. I suspended this
dingy over the nave of St James’s Piccadilly, with three salvaged lifejackets
hanging from its’ depths. The two adult, and one infant jacket represented the
Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt, reminding us that Jesus, a baby who grew up to
change the course of the world, was born to refugee parents, living at a time
of equal violence and political uncertainty. The global response to Flight was
overwhelming, with letters, poems, prayers and drawings flooding in from around
Two years later however, whilst the ‘refugee
crisis’ had dropped from the media spotlight, the situation was deepening and
worsening, leaving thousands of migrants still stranded in the camps and cities
across Europe, suspended between a past to which they could not return, and a
future to which they could not move forward.
my response to this ongoing situation and to what I see as one the defining
issues of our time. It is an installation artwork that is comprised of hundreds
of items of salvaged clothing, collected from the beaches of Lesvos, where Syrian,
Iraqi and Afghan refugees had discarded their garments after their traumatic
sea crossing. I felt these clothes told an intimate story of the wearers of the
clothes, hinting at journeys’, trauma and collective memory that can only be
In hanging the clothes above the nave of St James
Piccadilly, Canterbury Cathedral & Leicester Cathedral in a state of
arrested movement, Suspended asks the
viewer to engage in the urgent plight of what it means to be a refugee today. The
installation is lit from the centre by an orb that changes in density. As it
brightens it represents the light of hope by which a refugee travels, and the
light within ourselves that might validate that hope. As it dims, it serves to
remind us of the darkness we leave our fellow human beings in should we ignore
is your connection with Thomas’s?
I am delighted that my two children are current
pupils at Thomas’s Battersea, which is a truly wonderful school. I am also
honoured to have my installation A Shared Future hanging in the
central stairwell of the school. Comprised of clothes worn and discarded by
refugee children, it asks parents and pupils alike to engage in our ‘shared
future’ with awareness, responsibility, courage and compassion.
I am also an old Thomas’s girl, and look back on
my time at the school (in its’ early years) as one of the happiest times of my
life. Although bigger now, the principles and ethics of the school remain very
much the same as all those years ago!
does the future hold for you?
I currently have a rather long queue of very exciting
portrait commissions (including an enormous 12 foot canvas!) to work on in my Chelsea studio. I also work
on the committee of a number of charities, and enjoy giving a wide range of talks,
raising awareness about the tragedy of war and the possibility of hope and
I am however haunted by what I saw in Aleppo and
Homs last year and am currently working towards a new installation that will
reflect our universal vulnerability, the devastating waste of war, and the
urgent need for compassion, understanding and tolerance in today’s world. There
are few days when I do not think about ways in which to support young people effected
by war, whether they are refugees finding new lives in Europe, or a whole
generation whose collective childhood has been stolen by war in the middle
east. To that end, I have ongoing plans to return to the middle east in
preparation for a new body of work about children in conflict.
I am also hugely honoured to have been invited as
an expedition artist to cross the Aral Sea next year, a journey that will take
us from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, to document the devastating impact of water
mismanagement that has almost destroyed the sea and surrounding ecosystem, as
well as the lives of the local fishing communities. As with some of my other
commissions, this is an incredible opportunity, and one that I am hugely
For more information on Arabella Dorman Portraiture click HERE
M: 07702 177 064