Benjamin Britten Portrait

Artist Paul Harfleet was invited by ‘Imagem’ to create a portrait of Benjamin Britten to celebrate the centenary of the British composer’s birth. Paul Harfleet’s practice is primarily based on conceptual responses to a given subject matter so he approached this project in a similar way. In any portrait the ideal scenario would be to examine the face of the subject, Benjamin Britten died in 1976 so clearly this was not to be. As a result the artist naturally had to engage with his subject in another way, through the remaining images of Britten and his work, life and history.

In order to connect with Britten the artist sought similarities in his biography to seek commonality and access to this culturally prominent figure. Initial research revealed some arbitrary similarities with the artist: Both in the arts, both gay, both from the south of England. Both have tenuous links with horticulture, Harfleet with the pansy ( and Benjamin Britten who has a rose named after him. Perhaps more notably Benjamin Britten died on December 4th, the artist’s birthday, though most interestingly to the artist at least, both have curly hair. It was the hair of Britten that fascinated the artist and the consistent intensity of its curl. In the various photographic and painted portraits of the composer Benjamin Britten’s hair naturally features prominently, each artist deals with the curl in different ways, some meticulously some more generically. Harfleet intended to focus his attention on what he perceived to be the musicality of Britten’s curl. Britten’s mane of curls Harfleet imagined suggested the vibration of a musical note or the rousing strings of a Britten opera.

The result of this invitation has roused the attention of Harfleet and he intends to continue to explore Britten’s biography and work. Specifically the beautifully poetic burial plots of Britten and his life partner Peter Peers, the identical grave stones symbolise a life together, a life that neither had the legal sanction to adopt, this apparently mundane though touching symbolic record suggests a life led happily together, made all the more complex in the time of Britten’s life, where homosexuality was illegal. Currently legal battles for same-sex marriage still rage around the world, the symbolism of the identical grave stones of a same-sex partnership is still culturally problematic now.


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