Norfolk portrait artist Terence McKenna: painting the stars

Terence McKenna adds finishing touches to portrait of Zoe Wannamaker with Roger Lloyd Pack in the ba

Terence McKenna adds finishing touches to portrait of Zoe Wannamaker with Roger Lloyd Pack in the background (photo: Terence and Mandy McKenna) - Credit: Archant

We meet a Norfolk portrait artist who has persuaded many of the country’s leading actors to sit for him

Jehane Markham and Roger Lloyd Pack

Jehane Markham and Roger Lloyd Pack - Credit: Archant

From his woodland studio in deepest north Norfolk to a prestigious gallery based in one of London’s most affluent streets, portrait artist Terence McKenna has journeyed far.

McKenna is to mount his first major exhibition of oil paintings in Pall Mall. It will feature portraits of many well-known actors like Zoe Wanamaker, film and TV hard man Ray Winstone, and the late Roger Lloyd Pack, best known as Trigger in Only Fools and Horses.

But many eminent people connected with the arts in Norfolk will also be included like writer and literary critic Elspeth Barker, from Itteringham, and Jehane Markham, poet and dramatist and wife of Roger Lloyd Pack. Although it has taken him just seven years to achieve this milestone, it marks the culmination of an artistic career spanning nearly half a century.

From leaving drama college in his 20s and working as a jobbing illustrator for more than 30 years, “knee-deep in bits of paper with pencil roughs and discarded sketches”, he finally took the plunge to work with brush and paint in 2011. The transition has been a liberating experience.

“Portraiture really wasn’t a practical option with a young family and living in wildest Norfolk so I turned to commercial illustration,” he says. “I can’t paint as a pastime. It has to be 100 per cent all day, nearly every day. As an illustrator I worked in pen and wash or brush and ink but I always found watercolour a frustrating medium and I don’t think I was ever much good at it. For me, oil paint is almost magical in its capacity for rendering flesh, still life, etc. So, for me, the transition was a very natural one.”

McKenna works to commission from his studio in Banningham and travels widely to meet clients. Each work starts with an informal photo shoot as painting from life is logistically extremely difficult because of the remoteness of his studio and the fact that “very few people have the time to devote to the lengthy sittings that are needed.”

Top row: Willow Major (student); Kenneth Cranham (actor); Indian woman with gold earring; Judge Pete

Top row: Willow Major (student); Kenneth Cranham (actor); Indian woman with gold earring; Judge Peter Rook QC. Bottom row: Cesc Gelabert (choreographer); Lydia Azzopardi (dancer, costumer designer); Andy Smith (friend); Melissa Booton (student) - Credit: Archant

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So how did he convince Zoe Wanamaker, Ray Winstone, and Roger Lloyd Pack to “sit” for him? He and his wife Mandy have strong connections with the theatre. McKenna met Mandy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She taught at Paston 6th Form College, in Norfolk for 25 years, becoming head of expressive arts. She also ran the Far East Theatre Company and co-founded fEAST Theatre. Her brother is a director and her father was an actor.

“We have many friends in the business. I tell them I’m putting together an exhibition and what do they think? Actors are warm, generous people and they value the arts so it’s not a problem,” says Terence.

“The business of working from photos is actually more organic than it sounds because I’ve already spent an intimate time with my subject while we’re doing the photo session. I don’t set up a posed situation. We simply sit down and chat face to face and I take several hundred shots while we are talking.

“It means I can get hundreds of fleeting expressions and changing emotions in a relaxed and unguarded manner which is not necessarily the case when working from life,” he says.

“There’s no more sensitive drawing tool than a brush and the drawing and correcting process goes on all the time so that the final painting actually has all the different stages of work contained in the underlying layers.”

Portraiture is a high stakes business. “You don’t want to disappoint the man who is paying thousands for a portrait of his wife, and, at the same time, you want to do something that you are happy with and represents some kind of truthful portrait.” He describes his art as an intense study of character and personality.

“I devote a great deal of time to ensuring that the portrait does actually look like him or her, physically. After all, what would be the point in coming up with something that didn’t? But, hopefully, it is also like him or her in an internal sense, or behind the eyes, as it were.”

When not painting, Terence enjoys renovating the family home and preserving their 15 acres of woodland as a conservation project.

The exhibition is at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, Pall Mall, London, from April 30 to May 5. Terence McKenna can be contacted at