Lenny Henry – ‘Art is for all of us, we can use it to make our lives better’

Noddy Holder sits in the chair for Portrait Artist Christmas Special

Sky Arts has brought the nation’s favourite art competition back to screens, Portrait Artist of the Year – but this time, they’re trying to make history. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the event, Sir Lenny Henry has been recruited for the second year running to sit as a portrait model, and he’ll be the reference point for 200 members of the public who will be painting him in a race against time for a Guinness World Record.

Art lovers from around the country will be attempting the world record for “the largest number of people painting a portrait simultaneously” at Lindley Hall at the end of the month, on Saturday, September 30, 2023. (You can sign up to join in the fun for free right now by clicking here.)

However thrilling a Guinness World Record is, it’s all about the art for Sir Lenny.

“I think art galleries are the most beautiful places in the world,” Sir Lenny exclusively told Express.co.uk. “I like looking at paintings. I’ve always liked graphic novels. Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Archie, and things like that. I like all kinds of art.”

And he’s excited for the event as well – even if he’s not doing any of the actual painting. “I just have to sit there,” the Lord of the Rings star chuckled from his home office. “I imagine the artists are going to be nervous because it’s a Guinness Book of Records attempt … but it’s very exciting, and I’m thrilled to have been asked because to be asked to sit still – that only happens in school really. It’s going to be a cool thing, I can let my mind wander a bit.”

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Last year, Sir Lenny was painted by Morag Caister, whose final portrait was inducted into the National Portrait Gallery. Oddly enough, though, one of Sir Lenny’s fondest memories of that day had to do with his headspace.

“When Morag painted me last year,” he recalled. “It was quite meditative, actually, and I’m very into all that stuff. Once you’ve established what the ground rules are you kind of go into this Twilight Zone area where your brain takes care of everything. I thought it was very pleasant and a meditative experience.”

This is just one aspect of art that fascinates and encapsulates Sir Lenny’s love for it. But he feels we, as a society, could still be better about implementing art into our lives further. 

“Art is very egalitarian,” he mused. “Anyone can paint, sculpt… if we, kind of, accept that and allow it – oh my god! It would open people’s minds. It would blow your minds.”

For Sir Lenny, though, this has to start earlier. “It’s very much STEM and not STEAM – which I think is a real mistake.” STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning is being pushed in primary and secondary schools around the country (particularly towards women) – but art can play a crucial part in building this knowledge, he argued.

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“Art is about letting your mind go, thinking outside the box,” Sir Lenny continued. “And if you think you don’t need that in STEM, you’re very much mistaken. There’s a place where art and mathematics meet, and it’s beautiful. We should honour that and respect that. Einstein played a violin, didn’t he? Music is very mathematical – it meets! So why not encourage that, and why not encourage the creativity of problem solving. ‘What do I do next? How do I paint this? What angle do I push from?’

“I think if you put that in STEM it would open things out a bit. I think they should absolutely own that and honour it and nurture it – not put it to one side. Art is for all of us and we can use it to make our lives better.”

Sir Lenny Henry will be standing as the Sky Arts’ model for Portrait Artist of the Year’s Guinness World Record attempt on Saturday, September 30, 2023. You can sign up to participate in the painting for free at this link. The attempt will also be live-streamed for fans to watch.

Portrait Artist of the Decade airs on Sky Arts, Freeview and NOW on October 4. Portrait Artist of the Year airs weekly on Sky Arts, Freeview and NOW from October 11.

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