By Vanessa Thorpe
Arts Correspondent at The Observer
WHEN the artist Sir Peter Lely painted Cromwell he famously did it 'warts and all' in a bold response to the great man's challenge.
Now Alexander de Cadenet has gone one stage further. In a series of 15 portraits which go on display in London this week for the first time, he will be revealing 'the skull beneath the skin'.
Over 18 months, De Cadenet, who first found fame beside his sister in a notorious appearance on Channel 4's youth programme The Word, invited a wide range of celebrities, including Stirling Moss, Yasmin le Bon and Stephen Hend ry, into a borrowed Harley Street medical practice in order to X-ray their heads. 'I am interested in the idea that these well-known people soon become caricatures or parodies of themselves for the public,' said De Cadenet, formerly known as 'Bruiser' because as a child he was frequently in the wars.
'I came to the idea of the skulls through thinking about celebrity and how I could show what my subjects might look like in many years to come, in other words, the remains of their skulls. This quickly gets to the idea of the per son behind the facade. It is a way of creating an image of somebody that actually engages the viewer with the idea of a person's real nature.'
Among De Cadenet's subjects is the disgraced former politician Jonathan Aitken, now serving time in an open prison for perjury. 'I asked people to come in for an X-ray and most of them were perfectly happy to do so. I was actually amazed. Jonathan Aitken was particularly interested because he is, of course, looking at things from a more and more religious perspective.'
The 25-year-old artist, who went to Harrow and then studied art at the Courtauld Institute, took the X-rays of his subjects with the help of a trained radiographer.
'The radiation they are exposed to is about the equivalent of living in Cornwall and so it is all perfectly safe,' De Cadenet said.
But the skulls themselves are exposed to another danger - the scrutiny of phrenologists, those who practise the unorthodox art of determining personality by the shape of the head.
Looking at the portraits, Carl Blackman, a phrenologist, said he could spot distinctive features in several of the head shapes. A thin, long bone structure, like that exhibited by Aitken, meant, to him, that the subject was 'lacking in vital energy when compared to the powers of the mind ', whereas a dominant upper part of the skull, like that of racing driver Stirling Moss, showed an advanced moral and intellectual capacity.
De Cadenet hopes his work will deal with the contradictions sur rounding public identity and masks. Some of his skull prints are up to 8ft high, and all are reproduced in different colours chosen to represent each subject's character.
Skull portraits of his sister Amanda and of their mother Anna also feature in the exhibi tion, as do images of the interior workings of the heads of the Marquess of Bath and that renowned advocate of plastic surgery Cindy Jackson, a one-time girlfriend of the artist.
De Cadenet is, however, quite keen on leaving his public to guess just whose skull is whose.
'People have such preconceptions about the faces of the famous, so it is quite fun when they have to try to recognise a well-known face in a different way.'
See the Skull Portraits.