Painting Tony Benn: ‘He went to sleep while I was drawing him’

In 1998, Andrew Tift painted Tony Benn's portrait for the parliamentary art collection. The finished painting is on display on the first floor of Portcullis House in Westminster. Here, Tift recalls the experience of painting Benn – and the friendship that sprang up between artist and sitter.

I went down to London and got the call from the House of Commons. I was going to do a portrait for them, but I didn't know who it was. I was delighted when I found out it was Tony Benn. I come from quite a socialist family – they were all delighted as well.

I went down to his house in Notting Hill. When he moved in it was quite a run-down area, a long time before it was gentrified. I turned up, parked at the back of his house and went down the pathway into the basement of his house, which was where his offices were. After I'd walked down the steps I saw the bench in the front garden where he proposed to his wife Caroline.

I walked in. His secretary, her name was Sheila, invited me in. It was quite dark, really. As soon as I went in it felt like he'd been given a lot of stuff over the years related to his campaigns. They were all stuck on the wall.

Then he came in – he was the first famous person I'd painted at that point. For the first couple of minutes I was slightly awestruck. But he made me a cup of tea – he left the teabag in the cup, so it was quite a strong one. We just sat down in the front room in the basement, on these white plastic lawn chairs which were quite funny in the context of the house, and started to chat.

We sat down and had a chat about the painting. I'd taken my portfolio with me. The theme of my MA project was the deindustrialisation of the West Midlands steel industry – it was mostly portraits of people in factories that were just about to shut down. I showed him the portfolio and immediately he was very taken by it. He really responded to it. From that moment on we really hit it off.

We were chatting away. I remember there was recording equipment on the table – quite famously he records all his interviews with people. We were trying to find things that looked good.

As soon as I walked into the door I knew it would be a narrative painting, because I could see there was so much potential there. In one room I found a room dominated by a miners' banner that Arthur Scargill had given him. I was very tempted to use that but it was too big, it would have dominated the painting. He had lots of socialist commemorative plates, so we used that instead.

© Andrew Tift, image courtesy of the Place of Westminster WOA 4761

The chair he's sitting on was Keir Hardie's, which some guy in south Wales gave him. He had drove up and collected it. It's almost throne-like, which I quite liked as well. That added to the impact of the portrait – it elevated him. A lot of the things in the painting were already in the room – it was about 50% staged, I'd say, and 50% already there.

He was quite tired. We did some preliminary sketching and drawing. It was quite relaxing to do that. He'd been out campaigning the night before – he'd had some sort of late night. He actually went to sleep while I was drawing him!

You can see there's a tape recorder – I don't think he recorded our interview. He's got his pipe rack next to it, and then the old record player. He used to play old political recordings, from like Winston Churchill, on 78 or 33.

That cardboard box was a rubbish bin he'd fashioned himself. There was a bin liner inside there. Then there's his red box, on the other side, and the Mars bar – he always used to have a Mars bar there every day.

Next to that is his blood, to show he's got blue blood. It's right next to the mug. It's like a test tube, in a little presentation box. It's symbolic – he didn't want to go into the House of Lords but he did want to stay in politics. That was an important battle he fought.

Next to that there's a glass bottle – that was crude oil. On the shelf, there's a miner's bust – it's John Wesley – a campaign poster – and a miner's lamp – and just above his head, it's a Bible quote which was the family motto. That was very important to him. Then there's one of his diaries there. And some books his wife Caroline wrote.

The 'please don't knock, we are busy' sign was his Dad's, I think, who was a liberal. Then there's the picture of his wife Caroline, a trophy from the Transport union, then his wings from the RAF. And behind his wings, a bust of Karl Marx – he said he was delighted to get Karl Marx into parliament!

You've got a bust of Robbie Burns, and then Keir Hardie right at the end there. Above that is a family photograph – his sons and grandchildren. And a drawing some primary school children had done for him, I think from Bristol.

A lot of people have asked me what the open door on the right was. What does that mean, the fact the door's open? But it doesn't mean anything. It was just a compositional device!

I think we had about four sittings altogether: initially drawings, then I worked on the composition a bit, away from the site in my studio, then I went back and took a load of photographs.

He's always been known for being interested in people. I remember when my Dad died, this would have been about six or seven years after I finished the painting, he found out. And he phoned up my mother to say how sorry he was to hear the news. There's not a lot of people who would make that effort. He wrote me a little letter, as well.

He was always very interested in just talking to people. I remember at the end of the first sitting he gave me a little socialist badge which I've put in a little frame in my house. He phoned me up quite often, if he saw me in the broadsheets, he'd give me a call, send me a call to say congratulations.

In 2006, when I won my prize at the National Portrait Gallery, he sent me a card. He was in contact all the time, not in a big way, just in an encouraging way. One of his big aims was to encourage people.

He was just a really genuinely nice man – as he was at the unveilings. We had quite a few separate unveilings for it. He genuinely did like the painting, I think perhaps more because of all the objects in it. There was no vanity in it, he wasn't bothered about that. It was the personal stuff in there he liked that reflected and reinforced him.

.Andrew Tift was talking to Alex Stevenson. You can find out more about the portrait here.