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My Favourite Portrait by Bill Paterson

Bill Paterson, © Alan Peebles


Taken from the Gallery Supporters’ Magazine, Face to Face
Issue 33, [Summer 2010]
© National Portrait Gallery, London

They were both such enthusiastic smokers that there must have been many moments when Max Wall vanished into the smog in Maggi Hambling’s studio while she worked on this lovely study in 1981, but there’s such affection in it that you sense they had far more in common than mere cigarettes.

This was one of a series she painted when the legendary comedian was at the height of his rekindled fame in what he called ‘The Serious Theatre’ after years in the doldrums.

In Scotland we were long used to our comics moving easily from Mother Goose to Molière and from panto to Pinter, but it seemed to come as a surprise to London theatre critics that a great comedian could also be a great actor.

It all started with Ubu Roi at the Royal Court in 1966 and then he went on to Osborne, Wesker and Beckett. In fact, in Krapp’s Last Tape he seemed to be the very personification of Beckett. When he played Archie Rice in The Entertainer at Greenwich Theatre in 1974 he brought his whole biography on stage to merge with the role. It was like alchemy.

Now that he’s been gone for twenty years, perhaps fame could again pass Max Wall by.

The stage, both comic or tragic, is the most ephemeral art, but this portrait captures forever the hang of his face and his wonderfully expressive smoker’s mouth. I find myself adding imaginary speech bubbles above his battered hat to hear that glorious, elongated baritone saying something very naughty about Hambling’s cat, Onde, sitting in front of him. It’s perfect to me that the painting seems unfinished. He once wrote, ‘I think I will probably die amongst a heap of loose ends’.

Bill Paterson

Bill Paterson is a Glasgow-born actor and writer. Among his many film appearances are Miss Potter, Truly Madly Deeply, The Witches, The Killing Fields and Comfort and Joy. TV includes Criminal Justice, Sea of Souls, The Crow Road, Traffik, The Singing Detective, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Smiley’s People and Licking Hitler. Soon to be appearing in Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre. His short stories Tales from the Back Green are published by Hodder.


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