Friday, May 08, 2009

Exhibition review: Royal Society of Portrait Painters 2009

Continuing the theme of portraiture, the Private View of the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters at the Mall Galleries is always packed out! Which means you get to see a lot of celebrities from a distance and don't get to see any of the drawings or paintings very easily! My preference is for seeing the exhibition the next day when it's much easier to see, appreciate and enjoy the work - and take a break and sit down easily while you work your way round the 200+ works in this year's show!


Last year I had cause to mutter on this blog about the number of female artists who win major national prizes (such as the BP Portrait Award) and/or get elected to the RSPP. Maybe somebody was listening? At any rate two of the major prizes at the RSPP Annual Exhibition are of women by women! I also note that the number of female members seems to have increased and I certainly noted some excellent female candidates up for election - most notably Angela Reilly. I call that major progress and is certainly cause for celebration in my year of featuring female artists on this blog!

(left to right)
Ondaatje Prize: Valentina by Anastasia Pollard RP, oil, 51 x 41 cms (20" x 16")
De Lazlo Foundation Award: Margaret Bent CBE FBS, All Souls College, Oxford by Emma Wesley RP, acrylic, 122x122cm (16" x 32")
The Changing Faces Prize Mrs Edmundson by Anthony Connolly Assoc RP oil, 76x71cm (30"x 24")
copyright the artists

The prizes and winners this year as follows:
Interestingly the most talked about paintings in the show are a couple which did not win a prize.
  • Susan Crawford's small oil (11" x 14") of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall (right) which has been lent by the Prince of Wales is really lovely. It's one of those very informal paintings which captures a hint of an expression around the mouth and a look in the eyes. I was fascinated to find out that Susan Crawford is actually one of the world's foremost equestrian artists and has previously painted portraits of the Queen Mother. I guess royal sitters probably appreciate somebody they can talk horses with!
  • Peter Kuefeld RP, NEAC's painting of Harry Patch (right) - the last surviving soldier who fought in the trenches in the First World War. I really appreciate seeing portraits of ordinary people in amongst the ranks of the royals, politicians, academics, military and wealthy families who too often are the subjects of portraits in this exhibition. I'd really like to see a prize for the best portrait of somebody who's worthy of commoration but who is actually just an ordinary person.
Other paintings I very much liked included:
  • Ilaria Rosselli del Turco The Russian Woman - which I gather from Ilaria sold within half an hour of the PV opening! You can read her review of the exhibition here.
  • Luis Morris's Self-portrait in Grey - I loved the palette and I seem to recall that was my exact reaction last year.
  • Philip Carroll's two paintings of NHS patient waiting (I and II) - made all the more poignant when you realise that the bald lady with transparent skin sitting in her vest waiting to treatment has a name band marked Carroll. Personally this is the one I'd have given the Changing Faces prize too.
  • Angela Reilly's Subject (see right) - her work featured in the BP Portrait Award Exhibition last year. I was very impressed it with then and am even more impressed with it now. However I would like to see her do a portrait which isn't a self-portrait.
I was also rather startled to see a portrait by David Cobley RP, NEAC, RWA of a Professor that I used to work with many moons ago!

Portrait Drawing

Alastair Adams, the new and youngest president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, is 39 and works as a practising portrait painter.
In this capacity he .........aims to promote a higher level of debate around the application and interpretation of portraiture, whilst providing a platform for the encouragement and support of contemporary figure and portrait based work, produced as part of an incisive, observationally centred, drawing and painting language.
RSPP website
He also holds a research based lecturing position at Loughborough University and is Chair of the University’s Drawing Research Group. He's published papers on commissioned portraiture and the application of life drawing within a modern educational context.

I'm wondering whether any of this is linked to the change in the way the portrait drawings are displayed this year.

In this year's exhibition, the portrait drawings have been grouped in two prominent areas and can now be appreciated much better as they're not being swamped by huge oil paintings. The change in display represents a huge improvement in visual terms.

I've seen and very much liked Toby Wiggins' drawings before at the National Portrait Gallery and it was a real pleasure to see his Charcoal Burner for a second time.

A couple of other artists whose drawings I'd like to highlight are:
  • Michael Noakes RP - whose portrait of Dom Christopher Delaneyis very fine. His preparatory drawings on one sheet of paper for a portrait of Bruce Forsyth were also most interesting. he also has two plarge portraits in oil in the show of ex Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and HRH Princess Anne.
  • Geoffrey Hayzer RP for some reason seems to have left out of the catalogue. However I thought his were the best drawings in the show. They certainly exhibited very fine observation and exquisite draughtsmanship. You can see some of his work (not in the exhbition) here although you really need to see his work up close to appreciate the quality of line. I'd go back to the exhibition again just to look some more at his drawings.
The Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters is open 7 to 23 May 2009, 10am-5pm at the Mall Galleries. Admission £2.50, concessions £1.50 (free to FBA Friends, Art Fund Members, Westminster Res-card holders and under 16s)


I thought I'd also focus a little bit this year on commissions as portraiture came top in last month's poll to find out What's your favourite subject matter? - plus I know quite a few people do work on commission. So yesterday I had a word with the delightful lady who does all the portrait commissions and who is in the Mall Galleries throughout the exhibition - with the catalogues of portrait work by the various artists whose work can be commissioned via the Galleries. You can now see work by a selection of the RSPP artists on the Galleries new website.

Apparently enquiries about commissions were very healthy on Private View day and just as many as usual. More family groups have been commissioned of late. We discussed the reasons for this and concluded that these were portraits celebrating family life and enabled the family to capture a moment in time - maybe before children begin to leave home.

Most people commission portraits in oils. However people do also commission drawings and these tend to be people who do so because they love drawings rather than because they're looking to cut costs.

Interestingly, within the context of the FBA/Mall Galleries, I also understand that commissions for work other than portraits of people is also doing very well - one example being an individual who commissioned several paintings of boats!

Previous posts about the Royal Society of Portrait Painters


  1. Being a equine artist Ii've followed Susan Crawford for a a good many year's you might not know that her daughter Jemma Phipps is also a very accomplished portrait artist....... and if you'd like a look :)

  2. Powerful review!!! I went on Thursday morning and took it all in for 2 hours. I was like a kid in a sweet shop! There were some powerful pieces there.

    Its good you also noticed the prominence of the double display of drawings and the winner of the Princes Drwaing Award was more of a beautiful sketch which I really adored for its simplicity and sketchiness. It is a shame that drawing can't be located on the web.

    One of the best shows of the RP I've been to in years! So much to say but the paintings should speak for themselves.

  3. Just got back from the show: oh my! I am head over heels with Sergei Pavlenko's work!!

  4. Thank you for this reveiw. I would love to go and hope but haven't got the time I am afraid. So this review makes up for it a little bit....


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