Makenzy, 14, took up painting in lockdown in her shed – Now her art is on show at the Royal Academy 

The modest shed in the garden of the Beard family home on the Gower coast in Wales has had a makeover. 

Before, it had been something of a dumping ground.

‘There was an old rolled-up carpet, bits of driftwood, parts of an old boat,’ explains 14-year-old Makenzy, the youngest daughter of the house. 

‘It was dark, dusty, no electrics or anything, so when I was working in here in the winter, I’d have to use the light from my mobile phone.’

No longer! The place has been tidied up, the detritus tossed out, and the walls painted. 

There is light, too, at the flick of a switch. ‘Dad put lights in for me,’ beams Makenzy. Dad David, 55, grimaces.

‘Guilted into it,’ he confesses. ‘We did rig up a heater while she was in there. It was a bit Heath Robinson. I do feel bad that she was doing all that in the dark.’

It is quite remarkable. By ‘all that’, he means creating a painting that is the talk of the art world.

Out of the darkness of this ramshackle shed came a portrait that is now on display at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London’s Piccadilly.

Makenzy Beard, 14, (pictured) has a portrait that is now on display at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London’s Piccadilly after taking up painting during lockdown 

‘We gave the canvas a good dust because it had been knocking about on the floor for a while,’ confesses Makenzy. 

It is an admission that will make art valuers shudder. So, too, is her confession about where this masterpiece was painted.

‘Mostly on my knees or on the floor,’ she nods. ‘Because although there was an easel in the shed, the canvas was the wrong size for it’.

Her choice of subject, farmer John Tucker, is fascinating. Not many 14-year-olds would choose a ruddy-faced farmer to depict.

She laughs at the idea she could have painted a pretty friend in a floral dress.

‘I wasn’t interested. John has an amazing face. It’s very kind, like him, and it has character.

‘It was actually my mum’s idea I should ask him. She was driving past him in the field one day, and the light was amazing, so we went to ask him if I could take his picture and paint him.’

What did John make of the resulting hoopla? Well, he was clearly flattered by the portrait, ‘although he said he looked too scruffy. If he’d known more, he would have put on a shirt and a tie, and had a shave. But that would have missed the point.’

The stunning portrait of Makenzy's farmer neighbour John Tucker, which beat out 32,000 others to end up hanging at the Royal Academy of Arts

The stunning portrait of Makenzy’s farmer neighbour John Tucker, which beat out 32,000 others to end up hanging at the Royal Academy of Arts

She’s still not sure John quite grasps how many people have seen his image. ‘Mum did text him to let him know when it all went viral, but he’s not into social media, so I’m not sure he gets it.’

The portrait is certainly an astonishing piece of work to have been produced by any young person, never mind a Year 9 student.

It captures John in work garb, his fluorescent jacket seeming to glow from the canvas.

Some online critics have praised the likeness as being ‘as good as a photograph’ but, as is always the case with a convincing portrait, the power of the image goes way beyond mere likeness.

The use of light is exquisite, capturing movement, emotion. It has soul, somehow. ‘She’s captured the essence of the man,’ admits her dad, struggling to articulate why the portrait just works.

The Beards always knew they had a talented (and driven) daughter. Like her big sister Leni, 15, Makenzy plays hockey for Wales, and trains with her football team four times a week. Both girls also play netball and are qualified lifeguards.

During the pandemic, though, they found themselves in the rare position of having time on their hands and — in true lockdown tradition — Makenzy decided to try out a new hobby: painting.

She dusted down, literally, some old acrylic paints and an easel of her mother’s that had been stored in the shed, and started mixing colours on an old ceramic plate. ‘I still don’t have a proper artists’ palette,’ she says.

‘And I’ve had to cut up old paintbrushes because I didn’t have the very fine ones I needed.’

Although she had loved ‘drawing and doodling’ during art classes at school, and is planning to study art at GCSE level, Makenzy had never tried portrait painting. When she did — starting off copying a few photos she found on Pinterest, then moving on to an attempted likeness of her farmer neighbour — her parents were stunned.

As was her art teacher, who entered Makenzy’s farmer portrait for the Royal Academy’s Young Artists’ Summer Show, a national competition open to amateur artists aged between five and 19.

When it was selected for exhibition — one of 32,000 pieces submitted — her school proudly Tweeted her work. This, in turn, went viral, leading to suggestions that Makenzy is the newest of our old masters, a Picasso-in-waiting.

The family has since been inundated with offers to buy the painting, doubtless some from collectors hoping it will one day be worth millions. But Makenzy is adamant she won’t be selling.

One of several incredible works by Makenzy showing a bearded man smoking a cigarette while donning a cap

One of several incredible works by Makenzy showing a bearded man smoking a cigarette while donning a cap

‘Although my sister, Leni, who seems to be acting as my agent, says, ‘let’s not be hasty’.’

Her family — mum Hannah, who trained as an interior designer and dad David, a professor of musculoskeletal and surgical science at the University of Oxford — have now travelled to London to see her work in situ. It was not only the first time Makenzy had seen her own work on display. Astonishingly, it was also the first time she had set foot in an art gallery. ‘I’d never been to one,’ she admits.

‘My mum was going to take me to the Tate in London last year, but then lockdown happened.’

‘We live in the sticks, for starters,’ Hannah, 48, points out. ‘And besides, I think galleries can be quite sterile.

‘As a family we have travelled a lot — the girls were used to backpacking with us in places like Cambodia — so I think that’s where Makenzy learned about colour and movement. And people, crucially.’

One thing is sure: Makenzy is one to watch. It’s too early to tell if she will have a career as an artist (she’s not even sure she wants to be one, yet), but even away from the canvas she displays a maturity that is unusual for her age.

There’s a determination, too. She spent some 20 hours, over three weeks, on the portrait of John, getting up early to work on the painstaking detail before she had to ‘run for the school bus’.

‘When I do something, I do put 100 per cent into it,’ she says.

Several of Makenzy's pieces feature older men from her home town in Oxwich, near Swansea

Several of Makenzy’s pieces feature older men from her home town in Oxwich, near Swansea

Is there anything she isn’t good at? She points out that she can’t sing and she’s ‘only’ at Grade 5 on her clarinet. It turns out that she has done pretty much everything else early, and at breakneck pace. Her parents reveal she was born three months prematurely, and it was touch and go about whether she would even survive.

‘She weighed 2 lbs, and we just didn’t know if she would make it,’ says Hannah. Even more astonishingly, Makenzy has poor eyesight, which was only picked up at primary school.

At first, no one gave it too much thought when, in lockdown, Makenzy asked if she could use her mum’s old paints.

Her first attempt at a portrait was one of a little black girl she had picked off the internet.

She’s incredibly blasé about how organic the process was, describing just experimenting with the acrylic on the canvas, working out herself how to get the required effect.

‘I already knew about things like perspective. I think I’d always known that. And, in school, we had learned about depth and colour.’

She was consumed by her new passion, staying out in the shed late as well as getting up early to work on her painting before school. ‘Some of the detail, particularly on the jacket zip, took hours.’

A lot of people took solace in hobbies like this during lockdown. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t see it as an escape, just a chance to have fun with it. I did find it exhausting, though. After each session, my arms and back would ache.’

Even before her portrait had caused such a stir, Makenzy’s friends and neighbours had come to be intrigued by her talent.

She had agreed to several commissions, although she says she found this problematic. ‘I wasn’t comfortable accepting money for them,’ she says. ‘And I really found that the process was different.

‘In future I’d rather paint something I want to paint, then worry about what to charge for it later.’

A small child appears to be laughing with his head tilted back, one of several pieces created by Makenzy in her shed in Swansea

A small child appears to be laughing with his head tilted back, one of several pieces created by Makenzy in her shed in Swansea 

Can she make a fortune from her talents? ‘I have to get better before I even think about that. My aim now is to show that I’m not just a one-trick pony.’

Her parents certainly don’t seem to be fixating on whether her work will be valuable in years to come, although they do admit to having palpitations because when asked if they could send the portrait to London to be exhibited, they just posted it with Parcelforce.

And they declined to pay for extra insurance.

‘The story had already been out there when we went down to the local Post Office with it all parcelled up.

The woman said: ‘Is that what I think it is?’, but it was going to cost £100 for the insurance, on top of the £17.50 to send,’ says Hannah.

They regretted this when they tried to track the parcel, and couldn’t work out where it was. ‘We had visions of it getting lost or stolen. I was in a cold sweat. But, luckily, it got there safely.’

What happens to it next, after the exhibition, if they decide not to sell it? ‘It will probably go back in the shed,’ says Makenzy.

‘But maybe we’ll put something over it to keep it clean.’