In Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the protagonist sells his soul for the promise of eternal beauty. His outward looks are preserved, through a life of selfishness and egotism, only the painting of the protagonist as a youth reveals his true nature. The painting “held the secret of his life, and told his story”. Gray hides it behind a large screen; only to view and review it repeatedly in secret afterwards. “The most magical of mirrors”. It is placed in a locked-up schoolroom, hidden beneath a purple satin coverlet, behind a locked door to which Gray keeps the only key.
One modern equivalent of the purple coverlet is a withdrawal of permission and insistence on copyright. This was the fate of the photograph of David Cameron among his Bullingdon Club friends which was once a staple of the Mirror and the Guardian. In 2007, the photographers Gillman and Soame, who make a living from selling to middle-class parents the images of their Oxford-educated progeny, announced that they would no longer authorise the reproduction of the image, and since then (outside some dark corners of the internet), the image has hardly been seen.
The painting of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset, is almost as hard to track down. Previously on display at the National Portrait Gallery, there is no longer any record of it on the Gallery’s website (although the Gallery retains four images of his Times-editing father); even the artist Paul Brason has taken down its original page on his website.
Few 18 year olds have the money or the fortune to be painted by an artist. Nor was this the evening or weekend commission of a struggling painter earning a few pounds on the side. When he painted Rees-Mogg, Brason himself was fast approaching middle age and others of his pictures had already been displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Ten years later, he was elected President of the Society of Portrait Painters, a position he still holds. Brason has painted business leaders, intellectuals, and even Prince Philip. Why should anyone have found a need to waste an artist of this quality on the painting of a schoolboy?
In his 40s, Rees-Mogg is seen as a curiosity: the man who once canvassed for the Tories in Fife with his nanny. He is a Euro-scpetic, an admirer of Farage, and recently a speaker at the AGM of the Traditional Britain Group, a meeting place of former and not-so-former fascists with Tories nostalgic for a landed, rural capitalism. He takes so seriously the Conservative vision that Thatcherism still speaks for the people, that he has exiled himself far from urban life to Gournay Court, a red sandstone 57-bed stately home in Somerset, large enough to have once been a hospital, into which no members of the Great British public could ever enter save as servants or tradespeople, and for which he and his wife paid the bargain price of just £2.9 million four years ago.
To hear Rees-Mogg speak is to be reminded of a world prior to the emergence of the working class a political actor, where (as in 1901, for example) there were 1.5 million domestic servants: three times more than the number of miners, five times more than the number of rail workers, and fifteen times more than worked on the docks. In much of that world, deference to the rich was a mere matter of survival, and the Rees-Mogg ancestors and their class could happily believe the myths they told one another about their own moral and genetic superiority – there being few enough people in any sort of position to point out their absurdity.
Rees-Mogg is often interviewed about the painting, and he always speaks of it as if – like Dorian Gray’s – it contains some permanent essence of his true personality. But it is not a flattering image. The most basic convention of private portraiture is that the sitter is allowed to bring to the image possessions which manifest their status in the world. To take an elevated example, when Sir Thomas More was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, he was painted in a livery collar showing the Tudor rose of the King; the point being that More was Henry VII’s Chancellor, in the whole of England only the King was more important than him. In general, Brason has followed the convention, painting military figures in their uniforms, Thatcher with her ministers, university administrators within the colleges where they taught, etc.
Eton is like the army; it dishes out countless visual awards (coloured waistcoats, raised collars, bow ties…) to pupils who can establish anything more than mediocrity, Rees-Mogg is painted without any of these accomplishments. Either he never earned any of them, or the artist has chosen to paint him in the dress of the most junior boy.
More importantly, Rees-Mogg is painted without any visual prop at all (a musical instrument, a football, a pen…), nothing to suggest that in five years of the school he had acquired any personality at all. There is no sign of his father’s position (a Tory journalist who had had visions of becoming an MP), nor even of the props the child Rees-Mogg had already acquired as a reactionary in waiting (a suitcase, the FT). He is painted alone, without friends or any context at all – save for a dark and empty background and a closed window through which he does not look.
Without anything other than a school uniform (and this is a leaving photo: the uniform is one he was about to give up), Rees-Mogg looks insecure and unhappy. He has, or will have nothing – no possessions, no friends, nothing – to take into the world.
If this is his essence captured, then it is in fact a lonely and a rather depressing one: an image of dependence without reward.
At the start of this year, a scandal temporarily filled the papers: it transpired that our MPs, the people who had so shamed themselves with the expenses scandal, had spent a further £250,000 of public money on portraits of several of their number. Rees-Mogg (although he had not been painted on that particular occasion, he is notorious for this painting from his youth) was the only politician who would be quoted on the affair. In passing, he revealed the fate of his old picture: which had been housed in the school’s art collection. His answer depicts the same awkwardness, isolation and abasement with which his 18 year old sense once viewed the world: “It is flattering to know that I shall be in the Eton collection for as long as the school survives.”