project statement

Concilium Plebis is a series of extraordinary oil portraits of ordinary people by portrait painter Emma Tooth, with support from The Arts Council England. Tooth has lovingly painted the ubiquitous "Chavs", "Hoodys" and "Scallys" who are arguably the life and character of the UK. During 2008 she sourced models mainly by approaching strangers in the street...

The title 'Concilium Plebis' is from the Latin phrase meaning a 'Council of the Ordinary People'.

Generally only presented in the media in police portraits, CCTV footage and mocking TV shows, here the ASBO generation are presented in the style of Renaissance paintings, lit and posed like Caravaggio's. Here a boy's hood casts a deep shadow across his face -is he one of these menacing thugs we've heard about on TV or does he have the pensive expression of a saint? There a young tracksuited girl holds her baby, looking for all the world like the Virgin and Child; is she one of those teenage single mums blamed unduly for such a degree of society's ills?


In an age distinctly lacking in romanticism or soul, it is hard to imagine people will ever look back on the present age or its people with the sentimentality we might feel looking at a Caravaggio or a Rembrandt; the truth is, real life for most people at that time was anything but romantic. After all, Caravaggio's models were the people he plucked from the streets. Who can forget his images of angels and wise men with vividly dirty toenails?


In 2010 the series appeared at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery alongside the Joseph Wright collection. Wright himself was partly influenced by Caravaggio's Dutch followers, and painted real people during the industrial revolution. These are paintings of real humanity in contrast to "the great and the good" who are the traditional subjects for oil paintings.


The juxtaposition of classical 'Fine Art' with the subject of "Chavs" is immediately amusing, and therefore engaging, but belies its relevance. The images do not cheaply poke fun at the models; in fact the medium and style of the work encourages the viewer to find a gravitas and poignancy in the subjects. Emma has taken something thought of as ugly, threatening or 'lowbrow' and found beauty in it. She has encouraged people to face their fears and has engaged a completely new audience who would probably never have had their portrait painted and who otherwise would never have set foot in a gallery. After all, entering an art gallery may be as intimidating for a "Hoody" as pushing past him to enter a shop is for an elderly shopper.


We are swamped with throwaway commercial photographic images, almost as quick to create as discard. A traditional oil painting in its impressive gold frame speaks of hundreds of hours of painstaking study, decades of training, and lends a dignity and historical reference, perhaps even reverence, to the character portrayed.


In recent years words like "Chavs", "Hoodies" and "Yobs" have been created or adopted in common vernacular (and even in political speech) to discuss the current state of society. Interestingly the focus has turned on now-iconic items of clothing such as the "Hoody" or the Islamic woman's headscarf as surrogates for the public to attach their anxieties to. Even to the extent that hooded jumpers have been banned in certain public places, largely because these items now carry symbolic implications of gangs and criminal behaviour, as well as concealing the faces of their wearers from CCTV cameras. However, although few would choose to be intimidated by unruly gangs while doing their shopping, this does raise questions; should authorities in the West, be they shop owners or governments, have the power to tell people what they can or can't wear?


In her previous work Emma Tooth has long examined notions of costume and self image; experimenting with her own image through clothing, tattooing, piercing, makeup and body modification and is all-too aware of the ability of such simple objects to convey one's allegiances and equally to convey what one chooses to reject. Our chosen appearance can signal political, social or religious views, musical taste, role models and aspirations. We can state eloquently whether we accept or reject some or all of what society expects of us. It can of course also create rivalries and tensions.


Outward appearance is an extremely powerful tool and most of us are very adept at reading the sometimes subtle messages conveyed by just a few inches difference in hair length, colour of clothing and the infinite little details at our disposal to manipulate. But these symbols can also be misread; like judging a book by its cover.