Between December 16, 1999 and January 11, 2000, David Hockney completed a series of portraits of museum guards from the National Gallery in London. They were drawn in pencil, crayon, and gouache on gray paper. The work is called Twelve Portraits after Ingres in a Uniform Style and was first exhibited in the summer of 2000, as part of a millennial celebration at the National Gallery called Encounters.
1st Guard: A white man in his fifties.
— You want me to sit there?
— I thought so, yes.
— I prefer to stand.
— I’m afraid I’ve planned the portraits seated.
— In the gallery we have chairs in some of the rooms, but I always stand.
— I see.
— Could I put my elbows on the armrests?
— Whatever you find most comfortable.
— It used to be we had to stand. Now the policy’s changed and the younger ones, they all sit.
— Well, thank you for sitting now.
— I think standing is more respectful.
— I understand.
2nd Guard: A white man in his twenties.
— Isn’t the light a bit bright?
— Yes. It’s for the camera lucida.
— The what?
— It’s an optical device I’ll be using to help me accurately place the features of your face.
— Don’t they teach you how to do that in art school?
— Well, yes, but I’m doing a kind of experiment. You see, the camera lucida was patented in 1807, but even before that I think it may have been used to help artists capture the essential characteristics of subjects they didn’t know well.
— You mean a lot of artists don’t know how to draw faces?
— It’s more a matter of extreme accuracy and intimacy. I’m afraid it’s hard to explain.
— Right. Looks a bit like cheating.
3rd Guard: An Indian man in his thirties.
— So you chose us because you liked the idea that we would be on duty in the very rooms where the pictures would ultimately be on display.
— I didn’t choose you. I left that to the discretion of the board—
— You wanted the public to have the unprecedented opportunity, I believe you said, the unprecedented opportunity of comparing the portrait with the actual person.
— And how did you think that would make us feel?
— A bit awkward.
— I see that now.
— Can you imagine, Mr. Hockney? Can you imagine being accustomed to watching other people all day, then suddenly having to endure the scrutiny of thousands?
— I’m sorry.
— It will be like torture, Mr. Hockney.
4th Guard: A white man in his thirties.
— The title is clever, you know. A ‘uniform style.’
— The portraits are uniform and we’re all wearing uniforms.
— Oh, right.
— We are all in uniforms, aren’t we? That’s what they said I should wear.
— Yes, you’re fine.
— This is a nice studio you have here.
— Thank you.
— One in California as well?
— You’re doing quite well for yourself. The Tate has several of your paintings, I believe.
— Not as popular, though, the Tate.
— You know tourists. Between Harrods and Big Ben, most of them just come to us for the Impressionists.
5th Guard: A white man in his forties.
— Well, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘absorbing,’ but I’ve seen people ‘looking’ at your work.
— When I was at the Tate, I remember watching a father showing one of your California landscapes to his young son.
— Yes, sir. You know, some parents are so eager to teach their kids an appreciation for art. This man put his hands up to the boy’s face like this, like horse blinders, and just held his head there like that until the boy said something about the picture. I’m not sure what he was aiming for.
— Dear God.
— Poor little guy walked away sobbing. I’ve been a museum guard for twenty years and have seen some strange things. Attempted robbery, heart attacks. But it’s things like that you never forget.
6th Guard: A black woman in her forties.
— Should I smile?
— It would be a terribly long time to keep it up.
— Of course. It’s really not like a photograph.
— Well, perhaps you will suggest that I would have liked to smile.
— Around the mouth and the eyes, a few lines. A hint that I’m a smiling sort of person.
— I see.
— Because I am. You wouldn’t know that about me, but I am and I think you should bring it out.
— I’ll try.
7th Guard: A white man in his forties.
— I’m sorry. Hello? Excuse me?
— I’m afraid you dozed off.
— Did I?
— I’ll need you to stay awake. At least until I’m finished with the preliminary sketch.
— Of course. Certainly.
— Would you like to take a break?
— A cup of tea would be nice, if it’s not too much trouble.