Art and design: Peter Monkman, master painter

4th September 2009 at 01:00
The work of Peter Monkman, winner of this year's prestigious BP Portrait Award, depicts the children of the public school at which he works as well as pupils at the comprehensives where he started his career

Meabh Ritchie talked to him about class and identity - and of course his new-found fame

Original magazine headline: The master painter

Peter Monkman, the winner of this year's BP Portrait Award, is surrounded by paintings, sketch books and installations. There's a printing machine in the corner and an area for metalwork, and a multimedia room for video and photography next door. But this isn't your average artist's studio. This is the art department at Charterhouse School, where Mr Monkman has taught for the past five years.

The winning piece will be hung in the National Portrait Gallery alongside portraits by household names such as Lucian Freud and John Constable. But right now it's coming to the end of A-level marking time and this artist is more concerned with his pupils' work.

"They're a lot better than I was during my A-levels," says Mr Monkman, pointing out a painting of a night-time crowd scene at a festival. The subject matter might be typically adolescent but the painting has the depth and technique of a professional artist.

"Some of the students reach such a phenomenal level in a school like this. I sometimes tell them that I had to wait until I was at university before I got to use oil paints and canvas, whereas these guys are working in such a sophisticated way . For me, it was a gradual chipping away until I got better and better."

It's almost as if Peter Monkman can't quite believe his luck. Originally from the North East, he was brought up "in a very working-class environment, where you just went to the local comprehensive". He was always interested in art but wouldn't have dreamed of pursuing something without any financial security. He went into teaching straight after university while continuing to paint in his own time. After spending three years each at Longsands College in Cambridgeshire and then Sharnbrook Upper School in Bedfordshire, Mr Monkman moved to Wrenn School in Northamptonshire, where he worked as head of department for 10 years.

Mr Monkman enthuses about the artistic community at Wrenn School, but he eventually made a conscious decision to move to a private school, where he felt he would be better able to support his family and further his artistic career.

"Private schools were a strange, alien concept," he says. "I thought that you couldn't teach if you went to a private school, that you couldn't discipline a class." But his wife, who attended one herself, convinced him to try it, and since working at Charterhouse he has changed his views.

"The young people I teach now are not that dissimilar to the young people I worked with before: they listen to similar music, they've got similar concerns," he says. But there are institutional differences.

"They've got smaller class sizes, so the behaviour's different. The parents are quite middle class and culturally minded, and you get a bit more support sometimes. The students have higher expectations generally."

The BP Portrait Award was awarded for a portrait of the artist's 12-year- old daughter Anna, entitled Changeling 2. Its ethereal quality portrays the change children go through as they become teenagers, according to Mr Monkman, and it captures something of his sense as a father of his daughter branching out to another world beyond his grasp. Winning the prize may well be credited to the decision to change schools, allowing Peter Monkman, the artist, to have more time and energy to devote to his own art. But it is a choice he still wrestles with.

The many portraits inspired by his teaching career convey issues of class and identity by inviting a comparison of images of his former pupils. "It's a hierarchical system in this country that you can't avoid," he says. "However, if you're working within that and being given all these accolades and the ability to paint, you can still highlight certain issues that, as an artist, you believe in strongly. It's not done in a sensationalist way; it's done in a quiet way. This is the way things are."

One of the artist's series shows two Charterhouse pupils - last year's head girl and boy - alongside a sixth form girl from Wrenn School. The three paintings are unified by their size and the dirty-looking, sepia colours that give them an impression of old photos from the past.

"It's a little bit subversive and it's quite uncomfortable for the students at first," he says. "By making it from a fictional past, I've put them on the same level. If you think about the history of portraiture, it's very much hierarchical . The portraits take on a conceptual idea and play around with art history."

Julia Dudkiewicz curated one of Mr Monkman's exhibitions at the Watts Gallery in Surrey. "Students from distinct backgrounds are shown transcending traditional class distinctions as they display universal qualities that invite comparisons and evoke similar responses in the viewer," she says.

"Dignified beauty, showy sense of pride and self-contentment, self- consciousness or rebelliousness combined with a sense of superiority all recur throughout Mr Monkman's painted representations of emerging adolescent identities."

The former head girl's mother had intended to buy the portrait when she heard about it but wasn't so keen on seeing the final product. "But my daughter always smiles," she told the painter. "As an artist, I've taken liberty with other people's images, and reinterpreted their identities," says Mr Monkman. "I was interested in how they occupy their faces in a similar way, although they're from very different backgrounds. It's very much how they've posed and how they've chosen to sit."

It is no coincidence that young people are such a prevalent subject in much of Peter Monkman's art. It is through teaching that he developed his own artistic talents and he is emphatic about how much each side of his life has encouraged the other.

"By teaching, and forcing your pupils through that structured, creative process, it becomes easy, as an artist, to force yourself through that process," he says. "You'd take students to exhibitions, develop interests, share those ideas and get obsessed with stuff along with your students, and that would affect your work. It's such an important synergy between the two."

There are many preconceptions out there about teachers who pursue their own interests not being dedicated enough to their day jobs, and Mr Monkman has also encountered "ambivalence" in the art world from agents who find out he is a full-time teacher. But the teacher credits his current and previous schools, both of which gave him enough space to be an artist as well as a teacher. He doesn't think it would have been possible without their support.

"In a school like this, and to a large extent at Wrenn School, they celebrated me as an artist . I teach full-time and I'm head of department and I have regular shows around the country," he says.

"It's one thing I'd like to say to other teachers who have creative urges: it's really about negotiating time, and time management, both with your family and with the institution you're working in. If that's accepted, then the right environment can be provided for teachers to be successful, whether they're writers or artists or whatever."

In academia, it's taken for granted that educators carry out their own research and creative pursuits. Not only does it further their personal career but it benefits their pupils as well. However, when it comes to teaching at primary or secondary level, opinion is much more divided. It's almost seen as a diversion from your career, as if teachers who deviate in any way aren't as dedicated to the profession. Far from being a poorer teacher, Mr Monkman believes that teachers who pursue their own creative interests actually inspire better work in their pupils.

"There's a direct link between teachers who keep their own work going seriously and the quality of students' own work," he says. "It's absolutely tied in. There are no two ways about it. I think the inspectors who go round see that."

According to Mr Monkman, Charterhouse pupils enjoy the challenge of being confronted with the meaning behind their teacher's portraits. A couple of the pupils have been inspired to do their own portrait series and one has painted Barack Obama alongside a giant image of a baby and another of a school friend, trying to question our emotive response to Obama in relation to the anonymous figures he is placed alongside.

One of the things that Peter Monkman finds frustrating about teaching is the current GCSE and A-level curriculum. "It's quite restricted by its very mathematic criteria, something that doesn't necessarily favour the natural creative process," he says. "You could get a student, for example, producing very mediocre, not very good work, but because they've got a neat sketch book, fulfilling all the criteria, they'll get a good mark."

It's just as well that Charterhouse is an independent school and not obliged to be, as Mr Monkman says, "under the stranglehold of the Government". From September, the school is introducing the new Cambridge Pre-U qualification.

Pupils aren't marked until the very end of the two years. Although there are guidelines, pupils devise their own projects. It might sound like an examiner's nightmare but according to Mr Monkman, who is one of the qualified markers for the new exam, the assessment won't be a problem.

"In many ways the marking will be much more sympathetic to the individual pupil's needs," he says. "You can tell very quickly whether a pupil has had a really exciting, creative experience. I think the criteria reflect that."

In such a high-achieving school, the art department acts almost like a sanctuary where pupils have the space to explore their ideas through art. As Mr Monkman found at Wrenn School, art provides a way out. "It made a massive difference in many ways to people who may have come from very difficult backgrounds," he says.

"I passionately believe that art's not just about furthering other subjects by being a backdrop," he says. "I think art is very much there with politics and philosophy and English language; it's a mover and shaker in the way young people think."

Winning the BP Portrait Prize has secured artistic recognition for Peter Monkman but as a teacher he hopes it is an inspiration for all his pupils, past and present. "I hope they'll look at my award and say, `I know Mr Monkman'," he says. "`I know how he got there. He started from the bottom and worked his way up gradually.' For me, as a teacher, that's probably more important than the trophy itself."

Peter Monkman's most recent piece is being exhibited as part of the Threadneedle Prize for painting and sculpture (

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