Crowthorne Artist Susanne Du Toit On Her New Portrait Series


Berkshire-based artist Susanne Du Toit’s latest project paints an interesting picture of some of the UK’s most prestigious writers, discovers Rebecca Pitcairn

It’s been 10 years since Crowthorne artist Susanne Du Toit won the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world. Susanne’s painting of her 35-year-old son, Pieter, was awarded the National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) Portrait Award in 2013, winning the South African-born actress £30,000, a £5,000 commission and a central position in the St Martin Place-based gallery’s award show.

“At the time I wouldn’t have considered myself particularly a portrait artist as I work in different mediums. I did paint portraits but only of my family,” she explains. “I had entered the award twice before, portraits of family members who are quite well-known [Susanne’s daughter is the actress Elize Du Toit] and they never got chosen for the exhibition, but the gallery did write back saying they liked my work. So, the following year I submitted my son and couldn’t quite believe it when I won.” 

Susanne Du Toit in her studio

The award made Susanne, who is now 68, a household name overnight and she was praised by Sandy Nairne, the NPG’s director at the time, for ‘her simple but outstanding portrait of her son’. However, she says, Pieter wasn’t so keen. 

“Unfortunately, he never liked the painting. He didn’t like the way I portrayed him, he said it wasn’t very joyful and he was really surprised when it won and sort of annoyed,” admits Susanne, who has painted various personalities from the world of arts and entertainment, such as screenwriter Stephen Beresford and actors Stephen Campbell Moore, David Schwimmer and Timothy Spall. “But I think he’s made peace with it now.”

Born in Pretoria, Susanne studied for a BA in Fine Arts from the city’s university and then a masters at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston before moving to the UK in 1994, settling in the Berkshire village of Crowthorne. 

“We’re going back almost 29 years,” she says. “My husband [also called Pieter], was an orthodontist, successful, and while we were still living in South Africa, decided he wanted to open a practice in London. Eventually we decided we wanted to move to England. While we were in the process of moving, we came over for a week to settle our son into Reading Grammar School, as he was boarding there, and while we were here my husband drove me down a road, in Crowthorne, he had come across while going for a run and there just happened to be this house for sale. Within that week, we went to view the house and bought it and have been in that house ever since. It seems quite ridiculous really, but we just love the area so much – it’s so leafy with all the surrounding woodland.”

Ayisha Malik
Susanne’s portrait of Ayisha Malik

Over the years, the couple has extended and improved the house to suit their and their four children’s needs including the conversion of an outbuilding into a garden studio for Susanne. “When my children were smaller, the building was used as more of a playroom and I had a room inside the house as a studio, but now that it’s just myself and my husband, I moved my stuff in there and it’s just the perfect space for an art studio,” says Susanne, who is also grandmother to five between the ages of four and 12.  

The studio, where she hosts painting workshops, is filled with her family portraits, floor to ceiling shelves lined with books and large windows, overlooking her pretty woodland garden. “I’m very, very fond of gardening – in fact I’m always really torn between painting and gardening – so to be surrounded by my garden while I work is just really wonderful,” says Susanne, who, when she’s not painting or gardening, enjoys daily walks with her black Labrador Lui in Simon’s Wood and around Horseshoe Lake. “I just love being surrounded by nature,” she adds. 

In 2019, as part of her National Portrait Gallery prize, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of writer Jeanette Winterson. Inspired by that, she embarked on a series of portraits entitled Painting Women Writers. “Painting Jeanette had awakened me to the fact that writers are not just interesting people, but often have unusually deep emotional and imaginative lives, making them compelling subjects for portraiture,” she says. 

As well as being exhibited in London and Sussex, the portraits of 19 eminent writers – including Dolly Alderton, Clover Stroud, Dreda Say Mitchell, Diana Evans, and Rosie Boycott, among others – have been published in a book. 

Press Cover Crop Copy

Susanne describes the project as “a record and celebration, among other things, of female collaboration” – her book publisher, Eiderdown Books, which specialises in books about female artists written by female writers is, perhaps unsurprisingly, female led. 

“I am not a proactive person and to have started a project like this, I wouldn’t have done it on my own so I am very thankful for the help of my friend, art consultant Henrietta Rodgers for helping me to promote my work and Eiderdown founder, Harriet Olsen, who introduced me to so many of these women writers and sat for the first portrait in this series.” 

Susanne visited each of the writers in their homes or workplace so she could paint them in their own surroundings – some feature their children, pets and even laundry in stripped back expression of who these women are. 

“It’s always difficult to know what to put in the background when you do a portrait, so it was great to be able to go to their homes or their workplace and add something to the portrait to really make it theirs,” she explains. “I also asked every author to have something which might not mean anything to someone who looks at the painting, but is very special to them, to include.”

As well as the finished portraits, the book also features Susanne’s preliminary sketches and musings on her process alongside personal contributions on the experience of being a sitter from the writers. 

“Not everyone liked their portrait,” Susanne admits. “You know they would say to me, ‘that’s not the person I see in the mirror,’ but then they would say, ‘but you did get me’. So, I was very pleased with that, that they eventually felt that I did actually get something of them. 

“I think even when you take a photograph, you present your best angle. Or you try to at least. Even when you present yourself when you look in the mirror, I think you sort of turn your head a lot until you see something you can live with or you like. But with a portrait you don’t have that luxury. You sit still, you get into a pose but after a while, I think you forget to pose and what’s left is you. It’s just you.” 

Painting Women Writers by Susanne du Toit is published by Eiderdown Books, RRP £30 Hardback. The associated exhibition is at Farleys House & Gallery, Sussex, from 13 July-3 September

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