Lydia Blakeley switches memes for portraiture in her latest series of intimate, joyous paintings

The British artist returns, this time painting Leeds City College students and key workers who’ve “kept things running” over the pandemic.

29 November 2021

Much has changed since we last spoke to artist Lydia Blakeley. First and foremost there’s the pandemic. Flash forward nearly two years and Lydia has “had great fortune” to have continued working over the past year or so, making waves in her studio and on a number of exhibitions and projects.

If you’re familiar with Lydia’s previous work, you’ll probably remember the quintessentially British scenes of drunken debauchery at Royal Ascot and Crufts she depicted, or even her signature painting-cum-meme of the fluffy posing monkey titled Is This Internet Art? which caused a raucous response no less. She’s back again with a new load of works – only this time they’re less meme-based and a lot more purposeful, people-focused and collaborative.

For starters, Lydia has worked with Acne Studios to transform her dog paintings into a “dreamy” capsule collection for FW2020, excitedly transforming her 2D artworks into garments. Additionally, she also worked with Italy-based architecture studio Space Cavier to create a series of paintings set at a house in New York and featured in Vogue Italia. Then there’s the series of portraits for Everyday Heroes, a public exhibition held at Southbank in London, which Lydia marks as a “huge honour” to have worked on as it celebrates the key workers who’ve “kept things running” over the lockdowns. It doesn’t quite stop there either, for she also had work included in an exhibition of contemporary painting named Mixing It Up; Painting Today, on show at the Hayward Gallery – “it has been unreal to be included alongside so many of my art heroes who work in such varied and distinctive ways.”

Besides these key updates, Lydia’s practice has also taken a new direction in terms of content and intention, not least for the fact that she decided to (successfully) try her hands at portraiture. “It’s definitely been on purpose,” she adds, “through everyday heroes and the opportunity to turn my focus to portraiture and the challenge to capture the personality of my sitters. I’ve also been able to work on some little ‘pet projects’ and random observations that have spoken to me in the moment.”


Lydia Blakeley: Ben, Fashion and Textiles. Oil on linen, 150x90cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2021)

For the Everyday Heroes exhibition at Southbank Centre specifically, Lydia composed three portraiture paintings, the first of her aunt Jaqcui who’s also a nurse for the NHS. The others are of two people, both named Tom, who work in the shop next door to her studio, and who were also working through the lockdowns. These paintings were plastered large-scale across Southbank in celebration of such individuals. “Being included in the show really shifted my creative focus and helped me to reflect on the ways I could continue portraiture,” she says. The show also coincided with her new body of work titled Vocation, a collection of student portraits who are studying further education courses at Leeds City College. “2020 had been such a challenging time for young learners and I had already seen how resilient they had been through lecturing, often remotely, at Leeds Arts University. It was exciting to have the opportunity to meet the students in person; their character and individuality really shone through.”

Painting 19 students in total – some virtually due to lockdown restrictions – Lydia noticed the positivity of each sitter, which seemed refreshing considering the dire circumstances of that particular time. “I really wanted to capture and highlight their individual personalities, and I wanted to feature people who might not normally feature in portrait painting,” she notes. Friendship and connectivity, too, became a prominent cue for the works, which means you’ll often see groups of students enjoying time their time together, huddling and laughing, as they sit or stand around campus.

It’s clear that, even with a new sense of direction, Lydia’s skill in representation, colour and composition reigns supreme. She hasn’t lost touch with her signature style, either, and still manages to bring her playful aesthetic – as seen in the previous meme-inspired pieces – into the more traditional format of portraiture. Perhaps this is aided by her considered use of light, the type that glows and lights up the subjects at hand, or the intimate, joyous moments she captures with her subjects; whatever it is, we’re all for it, and we’re more than excited about her upcoming solo shows and the release of a new batch of paintings. “Not everything is always going to be successful or turn out the way I intended, but I think what matters is enjoying the alchemy of painting and that, through the process, there is the gaining of practical wisdom which manifests in future work,” she says. “I am a lifelong learner, so I have a real hankering to do some more creative courses at college in my region. I also really want to explore different mediums and materials, something that I keep intending but haven’t got around to. But it will be my new year’s resolution for sure!”


Lydia Blakeley: Mel, Art and Design. Oil on linen, 150x90cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2021)


Lydia Blakeley: Tom. Oil on linen, 60x45cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: Supermop with Marigolds. Oil on linen, 60x45cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: Pigeon with Peas. Oil on linen, 180x140cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: Mackerel with Gooseberry Sauce. Oil on linen, 150x110cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: I Hope This Email Finds You Well. Oil on linen, 183x122cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2021)


Lydia Blakeley: Cat Flap. Oil on linen, 30x25cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: Chonk. Oil on linen, 30x25cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: Chonk. Oil on linen, 30x25cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: Winner. Oil on linen, 50x70cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)


Lydia Blakeley: Vogue Casa 6. Oil on linen, 30x25cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2020)

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Further Info

Lydia Blakeley: Kashante, Debora and Elena, Fashion and Textiles. Oil on linen, 150x110cm (Copyright © Lydia Blakeley, 2021)

About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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