The beauty of ‘ugly’ portraits

Historically speaking, portraits have almost always been about glorifying the subject – so what’s behind our recent fascination with unflattering, caricatured depictions of ourselves?

Two years ago, my friend commissioned the artist Ian Stevenson to do a portrait of me. He’d been accepting drawing requests via Instagram and, knowing I love his work, she sent over a photo of me and my dog and dutifully awaited the portrait’s arrival. When my friend eventually handed it over to me, wrapped in brown paper, she felt compelled to beg me not to be offended.

Not long after receiving the portrait – where creatures from a nether universe appear to have taken the place of me and my dog – I interviewed Stevenson, who confided that a friend of his own had also seen the drawing, and asked if he was seriously planning on sending it out.

Anyone who’s familiar with Stevenson’s work will know that his warped depictions of things are half of what makes it so charming. And I absolutely love his slightly terrifying take on my face. It hangs, pride of place, in my hallway, where visitors struggle to know what to make of it. More than one person has felt compelled to reassure me that I don’t look like that.

Portrait of Emma Tucker and her dog Bear by Ian Stevenson

I still can’t really explain why I enjoy the portrait so much, but I’m definitely not alone in this love. A recent exhibition by Wilfrid Wood, entitled People and hosted at London’s Copeland Gallery, featured years of painted portraits created by the Spitting Image artist, all of them curiously off-kilter.