Topless women and former Hampstead MP Glenda Jackson in the frame to tackle sexism

From far away, these classical oil paintings of former Hampstead and Kilburn MP Glenda Jackson and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC do not appear out of the ordinary.

But look a little closer, and the traditional-looking backdrop is in fact a startling collage of pictures of topless women.

The work is the brainchild of Highgate artist Sue Spaull, who has painted 10 professional women against a background of scantily-clad models for an exhibition this week to challenge the levels of sexism in the media. Her subjects include many eminent and well-known faces, including Oscar-winning actress Ms Jackson, and Hampstead resident Baroness Kennedy.

Ms Spaull, 53, of Highgate Avenue, said: “I wanted to explore how we see sexualised images of women, and if that affects how we then see professional women.

“For example, Helena Kennedy is a very skilled lawyer, but to what extent do we look at her and think, she’s a woman and what does she look like? In some ways, the women in the sexualised images have just as little, or as much, power as the women in the portraits.”

The exhibition’s other subjects include Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Jane Garvey, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. The life-size portraits, on sale from £2,500, will hang against a painted wallpapered backdrop of images of topless women taken from The Sun’s infamous page three, as well as other newspapers, magazines, and advertisements.

Ms Spaull wanted the works to look as if they were hanging in a traditional drawing room, historically a space dominated by men.

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The deputy head of art at a central London art college, Ms Spaull said: “Imagery of women has been more sexualised than ever before. It’s almost like we don’t see it now because it’s there everyday – and I wanted to reflect that with the wallpaper.”

Ms Spaull has always considered herself a feminist, but was inspired to take up the cause in her art by her two teenage daughters. “I’ve become much more aware of the impact of these sexualised images on them,” said Ms Spaull, who is in favour of banning The Sun’s page three. “That’s why it’s important that we focus on these women for what they achieve as well as for what they look like.”

The exhibition, titled What Are You Looking At?, opened on Tuesday and will run until Monday, opening from 11am until 6pm everyday at The Strand Gallery.