Neil Gaiman and the Good Icons

Studio Info —

Lorna was sketching backstage at a Comic Relief event in 2015 when she came across Neil Gaiman and she asked if she could draw his picture…


Gaiman met Wadsworth on 28 February 2015 backstage at The Pleasance Theatre, where she produced drawings of participants for a Comic Relief charity event. Unaware of his fame, they talked as she proceeded to sketch his portrait in charcoal; they discussed writing, painting, and their careers. Drawing or painting someone from life is always an encounter of energy. With some people, the ability to capture their likeness and engage with their spirit feels instantaneous and Wadsworth felt like that immediately with Gaiman. So, she asked if she could paint his portrait someday and he kindly replied, “sure, why not?”

As one of the first authors to connect directly with their fans via social media, Gaiman is known for communicating with his nearly 2.5 million followers on Twitter. After their initial meeting, Wadsworth tweeted Gaiman and they eventually arranged a sitting. During one of his trips to London for the launch of his compendium of non-fiction, The View From The Cheap Seats, he met with Wadsworth for a sitting at the Canal House. All but invisible from the street, Canal House is a curious place that straddles Regent’s Canal in the shadow of a spaceship-like power station. For the artist, it felt like the right place to paint someone who writes about the “casual chaos of the universe.” Gaiman had stayed at at the house twenty years before when he was writing his novel Neverwhere (1996), a fantasy novel about “London below” that inspired the BBC television series of the same name. Gaiman kindly offered his time for the portrait sitting in his home while he was there briefly once more, working on an adaption of a book he co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett, Good Omens (1990) in June 2016. These meetings with Wadsworth culminated in the creation of a small oil on gesso panel portrait; it’s a delicate, timeless picture. Apparently they talked so much during these sittings Gaiman felt that his mouth was less realized than his eyes; the artist and the writer enforced a strict rule of silence so that Gaiman remained still and Wadsworth could finish it.  

To match the heroic scale of her sitter’s imagination, Wadsworth suggested that Gaiman might grow an Olympian beard– and the author graciously obliged.

After the completion of this small-scale life study at the Canal House, Gaiman and Wadsworth decided to create a different kind of portrait. Even though they both felt that the first painting captured the affable everyday Neil, in their time spent together Wadsworth had come to understand the Homeric quality of the author of American Gods (2001) and other epic tales. Together, they agreed to make a monumental portrait. To match the heroic scale of her sitter’s imagination, Wadsworth suggested that Gaiman might grow an Olympian beard– and the author graciously obliged. While writing his next book on the Isle of Skye, Gaiman grew an impressive crop of facial hair to prepare for the next series of sittings, which took place in Wadsworth’s Hackney studio in July 2016. In the end, both Gaiman and Wadsworth were delighted with the larger-than-life results. This commanding portrait in oil stretches across a two-meter square unprimed linen canvas. Tightly focused on the face of a living, breathing titan of script, this vast portrait combines the iconography of Classicism and scale of Romanticism with Wadsworth’s breathless style. Confronted by an intense, empathic gaze that emerges from delicately dissolving painterly strokes, the second portrait of Gaiman by Wadsworth conveys both the mythic quality of the author’s ever-expanding oeuvre and the small secret world living behind his eyes. 

Happy with this painting but still wanting more, Gaiman and Wadsworth agreed to meet again to create another portrait that would be totally unique and perfectly suited to the writer’s pictorial universe.  The result is the “Bog-Book” portrait. Conceived of by the author and painter, this strange, dark, but mesmerizing image appears on two sides of a small block of oak carved into the shape of a beloved book that looks like it was lost and found again. The “front cover” shows Gaiman’s face, disembodied, half-caught in a shadow that’s defeated by the light of his eyes. The “back cover” shows his head, with spiralling curls of black, brown, white, and grey illuminated by a halo from some far away light source. In this way, the viewer can see Gaiman as an icon but also stand behind him to follow the author into his dreamy world of dark and light. Gaiman’s brain becomes the book in between, the crucible of countless stories and fantasies, and this captivating portrait by Wadsworth provides the viewer with a new window into his imagination. 

Dr Emily Davenport Guerry

Lecturer in Medieval History
Rutherford College,
University of Kent,
Canterbury, Kent,

NEIL GAIMAN is one of the world’s most treasured storytellers. He is a prolific literary craftsman of prose, poetry, film, journalism, music, and drama. From the creation of epic comic books like Sandman, beloved children’s novels like Coraline, and adult novels like American Gods, which was transformed this year into a popular television series, his work defies the boundaries of genre and medium and appeals to people of all ages.  

 The Dictionary of Literary Biography lists Gaiman as one of the top ten living postmodern writers. He has received international recognition for his accomplishments as the winner of four Hugos (The Sandman: Overture, 2016), two Nebulas (American Gods, 2003; Coraline, 2004), and four Bram Stokers (The Sandman: The Dream Hunter, 2000; American Gods, 2002; Coraline, 2003; The Sandman: Endless Nights, 2004) among numerous other nominations and awards.  He is also the first author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals for the same work, The Graveyard Book, in 2008. His most recent novel (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, 2013) was voted Book of the Year in the British National Book Awards.  

 His critical acclaim is matched only by the admiration of his fans, who see Gaiman as their ‘rockstar author.’ A recent documentary about Gaiman (Dream Dangerously, 2016) followed the author on tour, providing an intimate insight into his phenomenal ‘fandom’. Over the course of the film, he patiently autographs over 150,000 books at various venues for legions of admirers, who queue for hours to speak with him. We watch as he kindly speaks with each of his fans and, at the end of every day, plunges his right arm– his writing arm– into a bucket of iced water to soothe his tired hand. Having shared his rich imagination with millions of readers, listeners, and viewers, Neil Gaiman is a modern-day myth-maker. 

Photo by kind permission of  Jenny Lewis , taken as part of her  HACKNEY STUDIOS  project.

Photo by kind permission of Jenny Lewis, taken as part of her HACKNEY STUDIOS project.

LORNA MAY WADSWORTH is a figurative painter based in London. She is known for her ferociously human six-foot-square painting of Margaret Thatcher (2007) and the equally larger-than-life, arresting portrayals of Beautiful Boys, from the 2007 exhibition of the same name. The same Beautiful Boys became her cast of disciples in a twelve-foot long altarpiece, A Last Supper. Painted entirely from life, this arresting biblical narrative scene resides in St George’s Church, Nailsworth. Her portrait of David Blunkett, painted when she was only 23 years old, was selected for the 2003 BP Portrait Prize exhibition before it entered the permanent collection of the Palace of Westminster. Wadsworth is in demand as a commissioned portrait painter. Her seven-foot portrait of restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, set in their celebrated restaurant The Wolseley, won the Exceptional Talent Award and the De Laszlo silver medal at the 2015 Royal Society of Portrait Painters Exhibition. All of her paintings – from her portraits to her altarpieces– are defined by a powerful inversion of the male gaze. For this reason, it seems fitting that Gaiman, who writes –in his own words– “stories where women save themselves,” would collaborate with a female feminist artist.  

Dr Emily Davenport Guerry