Philadelphia artist got to know Margaret Thatcher while painting two portraits

    Her conservative politics were as ironclad as her swept-back hair. Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, was almost never seen without pearls and a power suit. She died Monday at age 87.


    Her resolute image was immortalized by Philadelphia portrait painter, Nelson Shanks.

    Shanks has looked long and deeply into the faces of some of the most important people of the 20th century, including Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and Princess Diana.

    The portraitist, who opened an art school in Philadelphia’s North Chinatown called Studio Incamminati, was hired to paint Thatcher’s portrait, twice. Once in 1994, and again in 1998. Each occasion required her to sit still for more than 40 hours.

    “I do connect with people on a deep level, when they pose for me,” said Shanks. “It’s something about self-examination — the bonding that goes on between myself and sitters.”

    The first portrait was intended for London’s National Portrait Gallery, but it never made it there. Shanks says Thatcher liked the painting so much she kept it for herself.

    The second portrait was painted for the College of William and Mary College in Virginia, where Thatcher was named chancellor, a ceremonial position.

    Shanks says they remained friends after the commission — so much so that he was invited to her 80th birthday party.

    “She was a very beautiful woman. She had skin that was like transparent milk — an amazing complexion,” said Shanks. “She always carried herself in a dignified way. She didn’t strut, but looked composed. Very self-conscious about posing extremely well. She knew what I needed, and came forth with what I needed.”

    The portrait from the College of William and Mary will be loaned to the Michener Museum in Doylestown for an exhibition of Shanks’ work scheduled for this summer.

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