Recent commission: Johnson Beharry



Johnson Gideon Beharry, by Emma Wesley, 2006 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Johnson Gideon Beharry
by Emma Wesley
2006
NPG 6803

Until September 2008
Room 35

A new painting of Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, the first living recipient since 1965 of the Victoria Cross, is now on display in Room 41. The citation for his award, Britain's highest for gallantry, received on 18 March 2005, said: 'Private Beharry carried out two individual acts of great heroism by which he saved the lives of his comrades. Both were in direct face of the enemy, under intense fire, at great personal risk to himself (one leading to him sustaining very serious injuries). His valour is worthy of the highest recognition.' Beharry has been quoted as saying: 'maybe I was brave, I don't know. At the time I was just doing the job. I didn't have time for other thoughts.'

Beharry is a 27-year-old native of Grenada, who came to Britain in 1999 and joined the British Army in 2001. He was a member of the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment when he was posted to Iraq in April 2004 and was promoted to Lance Corporal in September 2006.

The acrylic-on-panel portrait by artist Emma Wesley was painted from three sittings of between two and four hours which took place in late summer 2006 in the front room of Beharry's London flat. The portrait's focus is on Johnson, the soldier, rather than his immediate surroundings. Wesley says: 'What is important about Johnson is within him, his modesty, his bravery, his generosity, humility and humour, less so his surroundings'.

The completed portrait depicts a young soldier whose bravery has left him permanently scarred and in constant pain. In Beharry's own words, he lives with what feels 'like an army of ants marching around inside my skull'. For Beharry it was important that he was seen in full military dress rather than combats since he is no longer on active service. Proud to be seen and remembered as a soldier, he explained almost every aspect of the uniform to Wesley, who in turn used the colours, symbols and iconography of the uniform to compose the graphic components of the portrait.

Wesley used the uniform as the foundation of the composition, inspired by Tissot's use of the graphic potential of military dress is his portrait of the Victorian cavalry officer, Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, by James Jacques Tissot in the Gallery's Collection. For the portrait Beharry adopts a seated pose with his military cap placed in his lap and his hands crossed to echo the Victoria Cross. The red lines of Beharry's uniform lead the eye to his head scars, and the military cap, a veiled reference to Christ's crown of thorns, represents his selfless sacrifice to save his colleagues.

Wesley, also 27, is a self-taught portrait artist who studied literature at Selwyn College, Cambridge and painting conservation at the Courtauld Institute in London before devoting herself to portrait painting. Wesley has exhibited regularly in the BP Portrait Award and with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters where she was awarded the De Laszlo Silver Medal for Portraiture in 2005. She has also won prizes in the Hunting Art Prizes, The Singer and Friedlander Watercolour Competition and the Wales Portrait Award. It was her prize-winning portrait of a sergeant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers which made her the ideal choice for the commission.