HENRY WARD (b.1971) is a British-born figurative artist who, over a twenty year span, has ascended to the upper ranks in the world of portraiture, having been bestowed with the honor of selection in 2010 to be an exhibitor at the British Petroleum ‘BP Portrait Award’ at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His rising reputation resulted in his being chosen to paint a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to mark her sixty year tenure as the longest-serving patron of the British Red Cross, whose humanitarian efforts have been supported by Ward since 2004. The portrait, replete with Her Majesty in flowing dark blue garter robes and wearing jewelry once belonging to Queen Alexandra (the Charity’s first royal patron), was unveiled at Windsor Castle in the presence of the media on October 14, 2016.
For Ward, art was something that formed an essential part of his being from his earliest recollections. He remembers “drawing before I was even talking or walking,” likening it to “a calling, like being a priest.” Living in the middle of the countryside with no neighbors, art was something to which he naturally took. “My vision started early on,” he recalls. “It was a combination of being isolated from other people as well as living in this extremely modernist house with unusual conditions. My parents got a contemporary architect to build a home on the Essex-Suffolk border based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design Falling Water.” The house featured glass, wood, skylights, and mosaic tiles, even an indoor fountain. He remembers “coming into consciousness with this as the background . . . it was the genesis of my creative vision.” One of his pivotal early memories is the “vividness of objects under strong conditions of light having a certain type of objecthood.” Another important early memory is his mother taking him to art museums even before he began his formal education. His first recollection of these initial ventures into the world of art is the work of Rembrandt, with his mother telling him that the eyes of Rembrandt’s subjects always followed the viewer around the room. “I remember being struck by this from the very start,” Ward says. “Rembrandt is my earliest memory, along with Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Van Dyck . . . (as well as) the interesting mark-making of Franz Hals and his ability to capture charisma.” Ward considers the history of classical art to be “an unbroken dialog of almost 700 years,” with special mention going to Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, whom he considers to be two of the greatest artists ever to have painted.
Ward’s formal artistic education began while attending Harrow School in Britain (one of the country’s most elite preparatory institutions), which he attended from 1984 to 1989, and where he commenced lessons in art history and drawing from the life model at age 13. Rather than deriving inspiration from a specific instructor or classroom experience (though Ward does single out one teacher, Jason Braim, as being particularly supportive), he believes that the institution itself, with its history of illustrious matriculants (including many famous artists), is responsible for inculcating in him the idea that, though the path would be very hard and perhaps fraught with penury, and that every single decision he made need be based on his commitment to art as a calling, he had the chance to reach the top. Standing high on the hill where the school was built and looking out over all of London, Ward often pondered his future, girding himself for “the journey of a lifetime.” A rebellious spirit, his behavior earned his parents an invitation to the headmaster’s office, where they were told that their son “was the naughtiest boy at Harrow since Winston Churchill,” an encounter which brought a wide smile of approbation to his mother’s face. Possessing a keen awareness that their child was “not the square peg in a square hole kind of person,” Ward’s parents never placed any impediments in the way of his career choice. Indeed, his father, a very successful high-court judge who had literally pulled himself up to the top echelon of the legal profession, gave his 13 year old son some invaluable advice upon being informed of his intended career track; instead of delivering a stern, ominous warning about the perils and consequences of a career in the arts (as many parents are wont to do), he explained that, whatever one chooses to pursue over the course of a lifetime, the amount one puts in is the amount one gets back; if a person puts in 100%, though standing to lose everything, they also stand to gain everything. “As a role model,” Ward says, “my father was incredibly important.” Despite his adolescent rambunctiousness, Ward nevertheless attained the status of Harrow School Art Scholar, winning every Harrow School Art Prize for the five years he attended, including, in 1989, the Lincoln Seligmann Art Prize. The long journey had begun.
Following his graduation from Harrow, Ward did his Foundation Training at the Chelsea College of Art in London (1991-1992), moving on to pursue his Bachelor's Degree in Art and Art History at Goldsmiths College (part of the University of London) from 1992 to 1995. Goldsmiths College had recently launched the careers of Damien Hirst, Fiona Rae, and other members of the Young British Artists (or YBA) movement, which was sponsored by Charles Saatchi. Pursuant to this, Goldsmiths had become Europe’s most important art college, fostering a a climate of success through creativity. The institutional ethos at Goldsmiths played a vital role in his progression, much like the atmosphere at Harrow School had done previously. “It was a very didactic, eclectic environment,” he explains of Goldsmiths. “It encouraged artists to go out and pursue their own vision, and also encouraged artists to secure their own venues for their work, to go out and create their own dialog, and manufacture events, in effect, to forge their own vision, regardless of gallery sponsorship.” Contrary to the prevailing trend of conceptual art at Goldsmiths, Ward’s commitment was and still is to the figure, specifically to representational art and the history of figuration.
It was late in this period (1994-1995) that Ward received his first two solo exhibitions, which took place at Nicholas Lusher Fine Art in Hamilton, Bermuda. (Ward’s parents had moved to Bermuda in 1987 and Ward visited often while away at school.) “Nicky came forward and gave me my first two shows,” Ward says of Lusher, now a dealer in New York City operating under the banner of The Lusher Gallery LLC. “He was the person who saw my vision and identified something that was unique in my work. Without his patronage those first couple of years, literally none of this would have happened.” With the exception of the piece Ward exhibited at the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, he feels that the pieces displayed at Lusher’s gallery represented “the best, in a nutshell,” he had completed up to the point of his executing the portrait of the Queen. Produced over the course of a year while living at his mother’s house in the Suffolk countryside following the deaths of his father and best friend, he believes that these pieces were the first ones he produced that truly used light to great effect. (“Their deaths,” he says, of the losses he sustained, “painful as they were, turned out to be the gift of higher knowledge.”) With the exhibitions at Nicholas Lusher Fine Art behind him, and aided by what he considers to be “a God-given commitment to sticking the course,” (which was reinforced at Goldsmiths) Ward completed his undergraduate studies and enrolled in Southampton University in Winchester (U.K.), where he received his Master's Degree in Contemporary Art Theory in 1996, authoring his Master's thesis on the history of contemporary figurative painting practice, as evidenced in the work of Eric Fischl and the California Arts Movement. Also that year he held another solo exhibition in Bermuda at the Burnaby Gallery, and was awarded the Winsor and Newton Art Prize, conferred by the Royal Institute of Oil Painters to artists under the age of 35 who have demonstrated creativity and talent in the use of oils, for his work entitled Mick. Setting forth for New York City, he continued his study of the post-conceptual artists, such as Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, and Cindy Sherman, most of whom had received training at the California Institute of the Arts. In due time Ward’s work was “offered to be looked at” by a top figurative gallery on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue called Tatistcheff and Co., where he was advised that “in order to be taken seriously” he had to be based in New York, whereupon he took up full-time residence, opening a factory studio in the then lesser-known neighborhood of Williamsburg, then home to approximately 9,000 artists in two square miles. In this creative context, The Tung Fa Noodle Factory became the nexus of Ward’s creative epiphany, allowing him to forge important relationships and further develop his artistic vision. While there he became acquainted with an artist named Peter Cox, an instructor at the Art Students League, who turned out to be the most influential artist with whom he had ever worked. Ward explains: “[Cox] told me to come to one of his classes and work from the life model again. His technique and consummate skill as a figurative artist led me into a dialog with academic drawing again.” Three years after moving to New York, Tatistcheff and Co. came forward with an offer of a solo exhibition, which was, as Ward explains, “comparatively unheard of for an artist of my age." (He had yet to turn 30.) In addition to the New York show, he held another prominent solo exhibition at John Mitchell Fine Paintings in London, as well as displaying his work at the Bermuda National Gallery Biennials of 1998, 2000, and 2002, with the latter gallery purchasing his piece, Bermuda Man, for its permanent collection in 2010. Among the paintings exhibited at The Bermuda National Gallery during these years were: Interior London (after Hockney), which was a contemporary response to Hockney’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews and Percy; Tom and Kevin; The Twins (Diana and Alene Joell); The Frieze; and Reclining Nude, which Ward considers one of his best paintings to date. That same year (2010) witnessed the event which would catapult him into the vanguard of his profession: his inclusion as an exhibitor in the annual BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London. (Since it first opened in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery has become one of the world’s most illustrious museums of portraiture, housing a permanent collection of historically important and famous portraits. British Petroleum took over sponsorship of The BP Portrait Award competition in 1989. A favorite on the British cultural calendar, the exhibition is visited by more than 250,000 people every year.) Artists from around the world are annually invited to submit work to the competition. Each year from approximately 3,000 submissions from some of the world’s greatest portrait artists, the judges select 45 to 50 pieces. In 2010, Ward’s piece was the largest portrait ever selected for inclusion in the history of the Award - 12x6 feet. In terms of Ward’s submission, a group portrait of 12 subjects needed to be handled with supreme mastery of the medium across the span of the canvas in three tiers of varying contrast and detail. The piece, entitled The ‘Finger Assisted’ Nephrectomy of Professor Nadey Hakim and the World Presidents of the International College of Surgeons in Chicago, or, The Wise in Examination of the Torn Contemporary State, is based on Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, which Ward had always desired to recreate. Nadey Hakim, the subject noted in the painting’s title, is one of the world’s leading thoracic surgeons (he has recently been awarded the French Legion of Honor medal) and is the originator of the pioneering ‘finger-assisted’ nephrectomy procedure that Ward had observed in theatre, which significantly improves levels of safety and patient recovery during and following the removal of a kidney. He and Ward have been colleagues and friends dating back to their mutual inclusion in the British Red Cross’s International Fundraising Committee, initiated in 2004. As chance would have it, Professor Hakim was already familiar with Rembrandt’s painting, which graced the cover of one of his published papers. After Ward explained his plan to him, Professor Hakim contacted the gurus and pioneers of transplant surgery, all of whom were past Presidents of the College of International Surgeons in Chicago. Following his booking a conference room in a hotel in Vienna and designing the appropriate environment, Ward gathered the participants together and completed the preliminary work; the Rembrandt painting was then recreated over the course of a year. “That was my proudest moment,” says Ward of his selection to be an exhibitor at the National Portrait Gallery. “In terms of opening doors, it’s the most important thing that’s happened.” The painting was unveiled at The House of Lords, Westminster, prior to being on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery for six months. In 2012, the painting was included in a book edited by Sandy Nairne, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery. Titled 500 Portraits: 25 Years of The BP Portrait Award, it contains what Nairne has named the pivotal works in the 25 year history of the competition. Propelled only by his singularity of vision and sense of purpose, with no representation or sponsorship of any kind, gallery or otherwise, Ward can safely be said to have achieved the near impossible.
Though there has never been a time when Ward believed that he didn’t have what it took to succeed, there have been many times when he did not want to paint anymore. The last ten years have been a particularly difficult period for the artist. Ward has a deep commitment to his young family and is simultaneously managing a successful career. However, at times, his needs as an artist differ from the needs of the family. Ward continues to take on private commissions and believes that his strongest commissioned portraits are the ones where an artist is given full creative reign. Having sold his house in London, he recently emigrated with his family to Canada and has purchased a comfortable home for his family and built a state-of-the-art studio. He has recently started a new series of works, one which he describes as “literally the summation of all my years of knowledge, technical as well as philosophical. I cannot stay out of the studio. It’s the springboard for the rest of my work.” His current series, Faces From the Dark, stems from Ward’s interest in esoteric knowledge and his belonging to a sacred ancient brotherhood. The original referent is the universe, with the transmutation of the body into higher thought being one of the key principles. In this series of portraits, Ward turns to the ancient mystics and the universe to contemplate Man’s placement within it. Through the medium of light, the identity of each subject is eroded such that their identity is secondary to their existence as a universal being. This series of paintings becomes a form of unification, a solidarity of all mankind regardless of our cultural underpinnings.
Another key component in bringing this series forward to its realization is the work of artist Andrew Wyeth, whom Ward considers to be one of the top three of the twentieth century. As Ward describes, “In terms of the history of figuration, Wyeth saw that a much bigger inquiry into the nature of humanity and the nature of existence could be made through painting. Ironically, Wyeth is not just known for his portraits, but his landscapes as well. One of his paintings looks like he’s torn a hole through the nature of reality and then, through the painting, arrived at the genus of existence.” A collection of 200 pictures executed by Wyeth and featuring his model, Helga, were put into book form in 1987 under the title, The Helga Pictures. Having first seen the book over 20 years ago and only recently having viewed it again, Ward realized that his own vision had come full circle and that the paintings now being produced are directly related to the work in the Helga collection. “In terms of influences on this series,” Ward says, “Andrew Wyeth and The Helga Pictures are pivotal.”
Having evolved into an artist whom others look to for inspiration, Ward continues to admire the work of many exemplary practitioners of figurative painting, including past exhibitors at the National Portrait Gallery, and “so many others who come to mind, like John Currin, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon...” But, he maintains, “I always come back to Rembrandt.” He subscribes to Rembrandt’s adage that “When you have mastered the appearance of the form, then you are at the beginning.” In other words, Ward explains,“once you’ve got your painting actually looking like the subject, that’s when you can actually start painting. Great art is about the universal conditions we live under, being subject to life and death, to material forces. The portrait is the starting point.” He goes on to say that, “it has taken me twenty years to master the appearance of the form. I know exactly what I’m doing technically and am in complete control of my medium. I now have a 100% relationship between my eye and my hand, and have arrived at the point where I am at the beginning of understanding.” Ward uses the portrait as a “springboard into a wider level of inquiry into the nature of being, the nature of humanity, and the status of the universe in human terms. It is very difficult to put it into words; that is why I paint it.” He sees the practice of art-making as a triangular relationship, with the subject at one corner, the artist with his own personal desires and dialog at another, and the paint itself at the third. In the middle of these three, there is a center that moves freely. Every painting is a balance of these mutually operating influences – at one moment, the dialog of the artist taking precedence over the subject, at another the formalistic nature of the medium taking precedence. For Ward, the greatest paintings are the ones where the artist has free reign to explore important questions of life, death, and the existential nature of human experience, engaged through the treatment of the subject matter. Ward is selective about the commissioned portraits he accepts and is more likely to undertake commissions that enable his artistic vision to be realized.
In 2004, when the British Red Cross set up a new International Fundraising Committee comprised of top professionals from the world of culture and the arts to act as an outreach arm, Ward received the honor of being asked to participate. Since then, working on its behalf has become a vital force in his life; networking with groups and individuals under the institutional banner of the Charity has enabled him to reach philanthropic sources he wouldn’t ordinarily be able to reach, allowing him to draw attention to the Charity’s important work. Highlights of his involvement include: curating the Art for Humanity exhibition at the German Embassy in Belgravia in 2005, officially opened by Mrs. Cherie Blair and hosted by His Excellency Mr. Thomas Matussek, Ambassador of Germany; curating the Art for Life exhibition held at the Japanese Embassy in London in 2014, by kind permission of His Excellency Mr. Keichi Hayashi, Ambassador of Japan; generating revenue for the Charity by arranging a tour of Venice with Count Francesco da Mosto and a tour of Blenheim Palace with His Grace the Duke of Marlborough. In appreciation of his commitment to the Charity, Ward was invited in 2007 to 11 Downing Street by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, to participate in a celebration of the International Fundraising Committee and the British Red Cross. In 2014, Ward was honored by being invited by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, in his capacity as President of the British Red Cross (by kind permission of Her Majesty The Queen), to attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace in honor of the Charity’s 150 years of humanitarian action. A material reward to arise from Ward’s work with the Charity has come in the form of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II bestowing upon him the opportunity to become a part of British history by virtue of his selection to paint her portrait, a decision reached by Her Majesty after a thorough personal review of Ward’s achievements. The recently unveiled portrait has received international coverage, and has placed Ward squarely at the center of the art world. In interviews given to the press in the wake of the painting’s unveiling, Ward has said that “as a long-standing supporter of the British Red Cross, it has been an honour to paint the Queen to celebrate six decades of her patronage. To portray Her Majesty as monarch and as patron of the Red Cross I have included imagery that relates to the history of the relationship. I have also been influenced by previous royal portraitists such as Anthony Van Dyck and Sir Joshua Reynolds.” Commenting on the portrait, art expert Elisa Roche said: “. . . I think it is beautiful and realistic without being unflattering . . . the Queen looks resplendent draped in her flowing blue ceremonial robes, which represent her power and history but also show off her softer, feminine, tactile side. This painting almost invites us to lean forward and stroke Her Majesty’s rich hem. The Queen’s Order of the Garter robes and jewels recall the wardrobe of Queen Alexandra, who became the first president of the British Red Cross in 1908. As a standalone work of art this is an iconic painting by a British painter who was born in Colchester and who studied at London’s Goldsmiths at a time when the Young British Artists were making their mark. And yet he has shied away from that very controversial and dramatic style to offer up something more appropriate and respectful. I think this picture has the look of an Eighteenth Century Joshua Reynolds, with its sumptuous rich jewel tones and use of light and dark in the drapery. I love how Henry Ward has picked out one colour as the main force in his work. Throughout Art History dark blue is traditionally the colour of integrity, knowledge and power.”
The unveiling of Ward’s portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II represents the culmination to date of the long journey that began back in the eighties at Harrow School; moreover, Ward would like his relationship with the British Red Cross to be viewed as a reflection of the way in which he attempts to lead his life. Now in his early 40’s, to have achieved what he has thus far places him on a trajectory that will position his work among the leading contemporary portrait artists of his generation, with the opportunity to earn a spot in the international art historical canon.
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