Thursday, June 18, 2009

Exhibition review: BP Portrait Award

This year the BP Portrait Award 2009 exhibition has a much greater range of sizes and approaches to portrait painting than seen in recent years - which I very much applaud.

It suggested to me a jury who were much less enamoured of the enormous photorealistic "big heads" which have tended to dominate in recent years. Instead we have an awful lot of small heads!

However that said, they still appreciate a well painted head when one presents itself - see for example my earlier post today - Sue Rubira makes her mark on BP Portrait

You can read about the prizewinners in yesterday's post Peter Monkman wins first prize in BP Portrait Award 2009

(Left to right) Paintings: Changeling 2 by Peter Monkman (the winner),
White Linen
by Jennifer Anderson;
My Grandmother by Ho-Jun Lee;
She-Ra by Eleanor McCaughey

All artwork copyright the artist / All photos copyright Katherine Tyrrell

(Left to right) Paintings: Portrait of my daughter by Michelle Carey Clarke;
Harry Patch by Dan Llywelyn Hall;
Brittattani by June Glasson
Madeleine by Jayne Cooper,
2 by Stephen Earl Rogers

Benfica Blue by Mark Jameson;
Eva by Natan Pernick

(Left to right) Paintings: Imagine by José Luis Corella,
(Left to right) Paintings: George by Louis Smith;
Ruth by Isobel Peachey (winner of the 2009 Travel Award)
The Rt. Hon. Lord Poltimore, Chairman of Sotheby’s Russia and Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe by Elena Baranoff
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster by Daphne Todd PPRSPP
Grandmother by SACRIS

From my own perspective, I'm still not seeing enough full figure poses for my liking. This is after all a competition where the first prize includes a commission to create a portrait which will become part of the National Portrait Gallery. To my mind all those who reach the final should be capable of delivering that commission. When I look around the rest of the National Portrait Gallery I see an awful lot more full figure portraits and/or portraits involving torso and heads and many fewer 'big heads'. It makes you think.

It seems to me that prospective artists could be given a heavy nudge by the competition organisers to think about demonstrating their skills to do more than just paint a head.

Below is one of my favourites in the exhibition. It's a double portrait (and we don't see enough of those either!) by Jennifer McRea. Her very splendid full length portrait of Michael Frayn is hanging just down the corridor.
McRae has exhibited five times in the BP Portrait Award and was winner of the Travel Award in 1999.

Movers and Shakers: Patat and Geoffrey Eastop
by Jennifer McRae
1220 x 1520 mm

Another suggestion I'd like to make, following discusions yesterday with fellow artists and reviewers, would be to ask the artists to keep a record of the painting as it progresses. The final 100 could then be asked to produce these records for review alongside the paintings. Such records give a much better idea of the approach used and how fast an artist works. Some of us looked at one or two of the paintings with a rather critical eye and memories of what happened with the debacle over the American Watercolor Society Gold Medal 2008.

Details about the exhibition

The Portrait Award, now in its 30th year at the National Portrait Gallery and 20th year of sponsorship by BP, is a highly successful annual event with both artists and the viewing public

Its aim is to encourage artists to focus upon, and develop, the theme of painted portraiture within their work.

This year The BP Portrait Award was judged anonymously from 1,901 registered entries. For the third year running, the competition has been open to all over the age of 18, and of the 1,901 entries 881 (46%) were from artists aged 40 or over. 524 entries (28% of the total) came from outside the UK. 56 portraits (38 from the UK and 18 from abroad) have been selected for the exhibition. (You can see furteher analysis of the numbers in
BP Portrait Award - who enters and who gets selected)

The competition was judged from original paintings by this year’s panel;
  • James Holloway, Director, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
  • Charlotte Mullins, art historian and critic
  • Sandy Nairne, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London (Chair)
  • Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP
  • Gillian Wearing, artist
Admission to the exhibitions for the BP Portrait Award 2009 and Travel Award 2008 is free. The exhibition is on display at
A fully-illustrated book accompanies the exhibition and features an introductory essay by Sarah Dunant, the best-selling author of the The Birth of Venus. The BP Portrait Award 2009 book will be published on 18 June 2008, and will include 60 colour illustrations, price £8.50 (pbk).

[Update: You can now read Book Review: BP Portrait Award 2009 catalogue]

For those of you wanting to keep the competition at the front of your brain so you enter next year, you can also download a mobile wallpaper or buy a poster! Note also that you can buy a print of any of the paintings in the final exhibition if you want to take a much closer look at a painting.

and finally.......

Here's a photo of the artist and his muse! Peter Monkman had his daughter with him yesterday in rather better lighting that that Brittany wood!

Anna Monkman, Changeling 2 and BP Portrait Award Winner 2009 Peter Monkman

Links to past posts in previous years about the BP Portrait Award on this blog:
Making a Mark reviews......


  1. You do such a good job reviewing! And this looks like a great exhibit. Wish I could see it in person. Monkman's the Changling is positively inspiring! Out of this world!! Good job.

  2. Great rundown post! I'm terribly fond of that Black Mirror one. It reminds me of my John Singer Sargent fixation.

  3. Thanks so much for writing such an interesting blog. Really enjoyed the exhibit blog. Some fascinating works.

  4. I agree with your suggestion of artists keeping a record of their progress. How awful it would be to go through another "watercolour gold medal' fiasco...


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