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After a long life of saying ‘yes’ to proposals of all sorts (‘Will you sign my passport?’, ‘Will you speak on the World Service to Mongolia?’, etc.), I had no difficulty in saying ‘yes’ to someone of whom I had never heard. Hans Schwarz rang up to say he was an artist and would like to paint my portrait. Well, why not? Especially since he said he was a CND supporter.

Bruce Kent

Bruce Kent 1992–1993

Hans Schwarz (1922–2003)

National Portrait Gallery, London

My appreciation of paintings in general had not advanced much beyond Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire and Constable’s The Hay Wain (the photomontage artist Peter Kennard once put cruise missiles on it to make a CND point). So portraits were new to me.

Hans came to our small North London flat and was satisfactorily businesslike. Not too much small talk. He was easy to get on with. I always feel a bond with secular Jewish people with a radical political tradition. It only took three visits, and he always came on time and did not hang around afterwards.

He sat me at my desk, which had once been our family dining room table in Golders Green of the 1930s, looking out over the street.

The cup of coffee was normal. Mine usually ended up half-finished and cold. The papers scattered around the table are normal too. The red pullover has long since gone to the moths. There was nothing staged. Hans just sat me down where I usually work, looking out over the neighbours, pizza deliveries and traffic wardens.

Either he did not show me or I did not ask to see the final result until it was finally produced at some exhibition. To start with I was really surprised by all that red. Where did that come from? Now I like it very much. The portrait conveys an impression of someone looking forward determinedly, with one hand on the chair, as if anxious to get on with whatever comes next. True to life.

I almost forgot about the picture until, to my amazement, I found myself in the National Portrait Gallery alongside various political figures, some of whom would have crossed the road had they seen me coming. Now I expect the painting is in a basement somewhere, awaiting a portrait resurrection.

‘Make friends on the way up,’ my father endlessly said, ‘because you meet them all again on the way down.’ Wherever all those portraits are now, I hope we are getting on well enough together. 

Bruce Kentpeace activist and long-time campaigner for CND