Belfast Telegraph

NI artist Gareth Reid: When I started painting Graham Norton, I never thought we'd turn out to be relatives

Belfast artist Gareth Reid got a brush with fame, a celebrity third cousin and a £10,000 prize after storming to victory in prestigious portrait contest

By Claire McNeilly

It's the type of story that would have done justice to the famous Big Red Chair itself. You certainly couldn't imagine an impatient Graham Norton pulling the dreaded lever while listening to this tale unfold. It belongs in the 'you couldn't make it up' category... and it brought a remarkable twist to a story Northern Ireland man Gareth Reid will enjoy telling over and over again.

The 42-year-old Belfast native is currently celebrating being crowned Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, having emerged victorious from a group of 54 talented contestants.

His prize was a £10,000 commission to paint Irish comedian and broadcaster Norton - whom a stunned Gareth would later learn was a third cousin.

The portrait of Dublin-born Norton is now on display in Dublin's National Gallery of Ireland and there's little doubt that the artist has captured the essence of the occasionally outrageous 53-year-old. So Graham Norton, indeed.

But the surprise back-story about their ancestry - their great-grandparents were siblings from Ballymena - gives it an extra layer of depth, as well as presenting the City of the Seven Towers with an unexpected opportunity to claim another famous person as their own.

Describing the coincidence as "completely ridiculous", Gareth said that finding out that he was related to the flamboyant chatshow host was bizarre "because the odds are so overwhelmingly against it".

"When you consider the thousands of people who entered the competition, and the fact that they could have chosen any celebrity sitter from a pool of hundreds, it's so funny," he said.

The former Campbell College pupil said he learned the identity of his muse on the final day of the competition after being chosen as winner by an esteemed panel of judges.

He added that neither he nor Norton, who was brought up in Co Cork, had any idea of their connection until the first of a trio of three-hour sittings that took place over three consecutive days in Bantry, where the star has a holiday home.

The pair hit it off immediately - "He's the same as he comes across on TV" - and Gareth mentioned that he'd watched Norton in an episode of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? during which it emerged that the entertainer's ancestors (called Reynolds) came from Ballymena, just like his own.

"I told him that my great grandmother's name was Christine Reynolds, and Graham said that we must be related in some way," said Gareth, who was given two months to complete Norton's portrait.

"So he went away and asked his mother and, during our second sitting, Graham told me that his great-grandfather, James Reynolds, was my great-grandmother's brother. They were two of more than 10 siblings."

Norton, who left Ireland to further his TV career, himself said it was "mad" when he discovered Gareth was a relative: "Mum has one brother and Dad one sister...we're not from one of these huge Irish families."

Although the nature of their kinship didn't necessarily make the task any easier for Gareth, whose Glaswegian partner, Suzy Roan, is a fellow artist, it most definitely added to their repertoire.

"It was certainly a talking point... although the conversation never would have flagged anyway - Graham certainly has the gift of the gab," he said.

"It wasn't a one-way conversation by any means. He asks you as many questions as you ask him. He's just a very engaging, interesting, interested guy.

"Graham took Suzy and me out for dinner after the unveiling at the National Gallery, so I hope we'll keep in touch after this."

Before reaching the final, the former winner of the BP Travel Award and five-times exhibitor in the BP Portrait Award Exhibition had a series of subjects, including TV presenter Adrian Chiles, actress Imelda Staunton and actor Tom Courtenay.

"I also had a commission along the way - Mrs Justice Cheema Grubb, Great Britain's first female Asian high court judge," Gareth said.

The father-of-three, who now lives in Glasgow, said he was "pleased" when informed that his sitter was going to be Norton, but "at the time I was focusing on the work ahead of me".

Indeed, at one stage there were three incarnations of the Norton portrait, resulting in several changes along the way.

"At one point it was a very cropped, close-up view, but it just seemed too overpowering," Gareth admitted. But both parties were delighted with the finished piece.

"The best thing about it was the fact that it was going to go into the National Gallery of Ireland," said Gareth.

"For me, that topped everything. It's going into a big permanent collection and that was brilliant."

The two previous winners of the Sky competition painted the Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel for the British Library and Alan Cumming, the Scottish actor currently starring in the hit Good Wife TV series, for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

It's quite a feather in the cap to wow all three competition judges - award-winning artist Tai Shan Schierenberg, independent curator Kathleen Soriano and art historian Kate Bryan - and win Portrait Artist of the Year, but Gareth is hardly an overnight sensation in the arts world.

His success in the competition comes 20 years after his graduation from Glasgow School of Art, and it must feel a lifetime away from what was a rather difficult start to his career.

"It was a bit of a roller coaster back then," he admitted.

"I graduated in 1996 and entered a portrait into the BP Portrait Award in London, which is quite hard to get into.

"Looking back, it wasn't like I was inundated with work, but I was able to make a start.

"I had a show in 1997 and then I went to Florence Academy of Art to study for six months, which was almost like a bootcamp for drawing. When I came back, I immediately started showing properly in Northern Ireland. I've always shown at home, mostly with Dickon Hall gallery in Belfast.

"I'd say that the proper exhibiting career started around 17 years ago, in 2000."

The besotted dad to three daughters - Lola (14), Ines (10) and Sylvie (5)- with 41-year-old Suzy, whom he met when they both studied in Glasgow School of Art, shares his passion for work with his wife.

But he laughed off any suggestion of living in a temperamental artistic household: "I couldn't possibly comment because I just don't know what you mean..."

He added: "Part of Suzy's job is that she's a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art, but then she's also got her practice as an artist.

"It's not really like mine; it's not as realist as mine."

Despite his success as a painter, drawing has always been at the heart of Gareth's work. Indeed, he teaches portraiture to adults at Strathclyde University.

"For me, drawing was always dominant," he said.

"I always thought the painting would catch up with the drawing, but it never quite did - though it's closer now."

Gareth tends to concentrate on portraits, figures and landscapes rendered with quiet, assured realism.

He currently shows with Dublin's Molesworth Gallery, which will house his next exhibition in June.

Although he stayed put in Scotland after graduation, he still nurtures his Northern Ireland accent - if not an interest in the goings-on at Stormont.

Nor will he be drawn on the independence debate that is once again raging in his adoptive country.

Politics clearly isn't an inspiration for his art, but family might be a much better bet.

He's home a lot to visit his parents Tony (71) and Clodagh (70), who live in Comber, Co Down, but Gareth, the middle child of three, has "no immediate plans" to return Northern Ireland, despite his daughters' attempts at persuading him to cross the Irish Sea on a more permanent basis.

"We've been back three or four times since Christmas," he said. "I try and get over as much as possible.

"I think my daughters would love to move to Northern Ireland, and they've asked us to in the past, but I think that's more to do with how much they love staying with granny and grandad in the country and getting their meals cooked for them."

Gareth revealed that he has met another acclaimed Northern Ireland artist, Colin Davidson, who was recently commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen.

Indeed, their paths crossed a couple of times because they both showed at the same venue in Belfast years ago - the now defunct Ava Gallery at Clandeboye.

He may not end up getting a Royal commission, but he does have a few famous targets in mind, namely Scottish tennis ace Andy Murray and retired Irish rugby legends Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.

"In Scotland, my target for a while has been Andy Murray," he said.

"I'm a tennis lover and he needs his portrait painted - and I think I should be the one do it.

"Ireland-wise, it would be great to get the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and O'Connell to sit for me."

Gareth revealed that he first entered the Sky competition - with no success - a couple of years ago after his students urged him to have a go.

"I was a bit reluctant to start with because if you made a hash of it, in terms of your career, it would be a bit embarrassing," he said.

"But I forced myself to enter it because you're always looking for a bit of exposure to get your work out there, and this seemed like a pretty good way of doing that.

"So I did it two years ago - and I didn't even get past the first heat.

"But I had such a good time I thought I'd give it another shot. I guess it was lucky that I did."

The Sky Arts Portrait of the Year series is available to view on Sky's on-demand service. Next week's episode, on Sky Arts on March 21 at 9pm, will focus on Gareth's work and career.

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