Portraiture first arose from the desire to be flattered and memorialised, but the pact between sitter and artist has always a touch of the Faustian about it. The artist has the power to draw out the sitter’s soul, but in doing so appropriates it to his own ends. The subject of a portrait – whether patron, friend or hired model – becomes, in effect, the artist’s property.

In Heads, Abbott & Holder’s selling show of portraits from the past three centuries, you can see this covenant at work, as people wishing to be remembered become, instead, part of a painter’s oeuvre. When artists depict their colleagues, as with GP Jacomb-Hood’s charcoal of John Singer Sargent or John Raphael Smith’s study of an amused Daniel Gardner, the undeclared contest is palpable. Which artist will be favoured by posterity – the sitter or the portraitist?

And what are we to make of portraits such as the anonymous profile of c1800, where the names of neither artist nor subject have survived? All we have to go on is the sitter’s expression – somewhere between benificent and simpering – and his clothes, which offer a wealth of clues to a fashion historian but cannot always be trusted to convey the truth. The dangers of this appeal to sartorial authority are illustrated in Edward Baird’s powerful 1932 portrait of fellow Scots nationalist Fionn MacColla. The writer glares at us, wearing an invented SNP uniform with a lion rampant above a tartan breast pocket and paired saltires at the collar. Militant fervour, or a wry satire on contemporary totalitarianism? Perhaps there is a clue in the title of MacColla’s memoirs – Mein Bumpf.

There are similar themes of Scottishness and ambiguity at play in Mark Neville’s photograph Newborn Lamb, on show in Newcastle. Here the stagey compositions of Soviet Pictorialism are put to work not in some remote oblast, but on the isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. The crofters shown in adoration of the newborn are rugged archetypes, mannequins posed in a vaguely religious tableau; the result is a shot that cannot be taken at face value.

The impossibility of truly representing the sitter is the dominant theme at the Hatton Gallery, where contemporary artists address the problem of portraiture by, in many cases, abandoning it altogether. Nigel Shafran’s photographs, for example, are essays on absence – a stark, empty room in which the chair-frame doesn’t even have a seat, let alone a sitter. Milena Dragicevic replaces her sitter’s mouth with the long beak of a plague doctor, while for Iain Hetherington the face becomes an abstract of polychrome dabs on which the New York Yankees logo is the only discernible feature. And what are we to make of Toby Ziegler’s 2006 sculpture Portrait of CL? Standing 2m high and assembled from triangular pieces of plastic, it is a huge, angular, black pineapple. There’s no question about who gets the upper hand here.

First published in World of Interiors issue 341. Reproduced with permission.

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