Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels review, National Portrait Gallery: a fascinating meeting of pop stars, film stars and Elizabethan grandees  

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Twilight, by Elizabeth Peyton (detail)
Twilight, by Elizabeth Peyton (detail) Credit: © Elizabeth Peyton

Elizabeth I has a new courtier in attendance, dipping his head deferentially towards her inside the National Portrait Gallery.

With red hair, rouged lips, and ghostly-pale skin, this delicate youth appears to be imitating the queen’s appearance in the so-called “Darnley Portrait” of circa 1575, at which he nods.

And his name? Not Cecil, Dudley, Raleigh, or, indeed, any of the other dazzling gentlemen who swore allegiance to the Virgin Queen – but Kurt Cobain.

Now, before you splutter into your cornflakes, let me explain what a portrait of the frontman of Nineties rock band Nirvana is doing among the Tudors.

For the first time, the gallery has decided to honour a contemporary artist by inviting them to “engage” with the permanent collection.

The artist in question is the 54-year-old American figurative painter Elizabeth Peyton, best known for her dreamy, highly romanticised portraits of youthful celebrities, historical figures, and cultural icons, often depicted on the cusp of greatness.

Downstairs, in the temporary exhibition spaces, Peyton is showing around 40 small, jewel-like paintings, mostly produced during the decade since her last British retrospective, Live Forever, at the Whitechapel. These include a rich, strange posthumous watercolour of David Bowie.

David, March 2017 by Elizabeth Peyton Credit: © Elizabeth Peyton

Elsewhere, though, at intervals throughout the permanent displays, her work also appears alongside some of the collection’s most famous portraits.

“Alizarin Kurt” (1995) – a surprisingly natural pair for the Darnley Portrait – isn’t Peyton’s only picture in the Tudor gallery.

A platinum-haired David Hockney hangs next to Shakespeare’s handsome patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (the Elizabethan Age was the ultimate era of self-fashioning, after all).

Keith Richards and Jarvis Cocker languish beside another portrait of Good Queen Bess.

Paintings and drawings by Peyton also pop up next to Van Dyck’s glamorous self-portrait and GF Watts’s likeness of the 17-year-old Ellen Terry.

It may sound silly and superficial, an egregious example of dumbing-down. Yet, against the odds, it works.

It is a delicious shock, for instance, to encounter Peyton’s well-known vision of Liam Gallagher between portraits of two of Elizabeth’s most trusted ministers.

Despite appearing like a whey-faced pretty boy, wearing red lipstick, Gallagher fixes us with a self-confident, electrifying stare, his blue eyes crackling with charisma, suggesting that he’s as hard-as-nails as the posturing politicians who flank him.

Blue Liam 1996 Credit: © Elizabeth Peyton

And, if Peyton’s Gallagher feels at home among the Elizabethans, they, in turn, feel freshened up.

Suddenly, we notice details that, ordinarily, we might miss: the dashing pearl earring and dramatic fur-trimmed cloak, say, worn by that quintessential Renaissance man, Walter Ralegh. Even 16th-century portraits were contemporary once.

Which is why moving a shadowy portrait of John Donne as a young lover wearing a black hat downstairs into the thick of Peyton’s show doesn’t feel forced.

Indeed, with his intense stare and ruby-red lips, the metaphysical poet looks like he could have sat for Peyton only yesterday.

A poem by Donne (“Aire and Angels”) provides the exhibition’s title – which, given the increasingly fluid, ethereal, translucent way that Peyton paints, feels apt.

In many ways, Peyton, who sometimes works from life, is a rare creature: a contemporary artist unafraid to worship at the altar of beauty and love. Her portraits have a besotted air, as though they were created not by a trained artist but a super-fan expressing a crush on a heartthrob. Their sweetness is almost shocking.

After Michelangelo by Elizabeth Peyton, 2017 Credit: 210839627

She tends to idealise everyone she paints, so that, often, they end up with the pointy, front-cover-perfect features of elfin actor Orlando Bloom. This can feel mannered and cloying. Indeed, I remember, as a cynical twentysomething, I remember hating her 2009 Whitechapel show: where was reality’s darkness and grit?

But hanging her best works beside great British portraits from the past proves a surprising coup. This memorable exhibition forces us to recognise the strength beneath the soppiness of Peyton’s art.

From Oct 3 until Jan 5; information: 020 7306 0055