Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2010

Last week I went to see the 2010 Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters at the Mall Galleries in London.  I usually go on Private View day (always a major crush because the Mall Galleries is always packed out with guests) or much nearer the beginning.  However this year there was a little matter of an election closely followed by the intrigue of a hung parliament and while I didn't stay glued to the television like my mother, it certainly knocked my plans for six!  The exhibition closes on Friday

Cover of the RSPP 2010 Exhibition Catalogue
Joy by Robin-Lee Hall - winner of the Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture
egg tempera 71 61c (28 x 24") Not for Sale

According to the catalogue it took eight members of the selection panel about eight and a half hours to look at 822 submissions.  This year the catalogue explains how the process works.  There are two rounds.  In the first round some works will be marked as 'Doubtful' - which means they might make it if they don't have enough straight 'A's (for 'acceptances') from the first round.  They then take a second look before deciding on the c.200 works which are hung in the show.

"It's quite an intense business as we try to be as fair as possible, not looking at names, but making our judgements purely from the images put before us.  We are looking for paintings that catch the eye with a combination of skill, composition, good and intelligent use of colour, humour, expression and energy, as well as offering insight into the subject.  we want to see that pure passion for painting and drawing that we feel ourselves as artists"
Robin-Lee Hall

Of course RP members are pretty much always going to get their work hung.  So I did a count and work by non members and people not invited to show accounted for just 10% of the total entry and just over a quarter of the works hung.

This year it felt refreshing to walk into an exhibition which included some large paintings after a spate of exhibitions where artists seemed to have taken to downsizing with avengeance.  I guess portraiture commissions tend to be one of those things which beat the recession.  If you've got enough money tio commission one in the first place it's unlikely that you'll want to skimp.  Plus artists who make their livelihood via commissions want to be able to demonstrate what they can do  - and the ability to paint large portraits is undoubtedly a skill which tends to impress.  It was also nice to see a bit of colour on the wall!

I'm going to detail the awards and then highlight some works which I was particularly impressed with.

Note:  Artists own the copyright of all images; all photographs taken with the permission of the Mall Galleries for review purposes - copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The Awards

Listed below are the prizes and the winners in 2010.  I've included a photograph of the winning work.

The Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture (£10,000 for the most distinguished portrait plus the Society's Gold Medal): This year the prize was awarded to Robin-Lee Hall RP for 'Joy'  - see top.   The subject is the best friend of her mother and is painted in egg tempera.  The portrait is being donated to Girton College for their permanent collection of People's Portraits.

De Laszlo Prize for Outstanding Portraiture (£3,000 for an artist aged 35 and under judged to have submitted the best portrait plus the Silver Medal) was won by Norman Long (a non member) his portrait of his father 'Walter Samuel Long'.  Unfortunately the RSPP website has identified the prizewinner as being his father!

I think this was maybe my favourite portrait in the whole of the show.  It stood head and shoulders above the works in the room in which it was displayed and seemed to shine out of the wall.

 Walter Samuel Long (NFS) by Norman Long
oil, 58 x 68cm (23 x 26")

The Changing Faces Prize (for the portrait that is most powerful in the way that the subject communicates with the viewer beyond the canvas) was awarded to 'Caroline V' by Antony Williams RP, PS, NEAC

Caroline V (NFS)
egg tempera, 46 x 36cm (18 x 14")

The Prince of Wales's Award for Portrait Drawing (£2,000 for a portrait in any recognised drawing medium plus a framed certificate) was won by Louise Yates for 'Alan'.  This was an invited work.

Alan by Louise Yates  
(The Prince's drawing School, invited work)
Charcoal 61 x 77cm (24 x 30")

I really liked  much of the drawings on display.  While this was certainly a powerful piece my preference lay with drawings which were drawings rather than half way to paintings which I felt the winning piece.   

Self Portrait III (NFS) by Yasunobu Shidami
oil, 120 x 120 cm (47 x 47")

The Arts Club Award (one year's complementary membership to the Arts Club) was given to the very large self-portrait by Yasunobu Shidami who is a painter and calligrapher.    He's an ex student from Heatherley's whose very painterly work seems to become more and more impressive every time I see it.  I gather he paints for himself.

Other drawings and paintings 

Overall, the wall of drawings either side of the entrance were very impressive. I often think small drawings can run the risk of being overlooked. Two artists who worked smaller this year whose work i really liked were Benjamin Sullivan whose drawings of older ladies were incredibly fine. He also has work in the BP Portrait Award this year. I also really liked Tom Phillips small drawing of Freeman Dyson.

I also liked Sally Cutler's linocut of Dulwich Heads - which you can also see on her website.

 Portrait of Austin Mitchell MP and his wife Linda at home in Yorkshire (NFS)
by Tony Noble 
oil, 130 x 189cm (51 x 63")

I really liked the painting of Austin Mitchell and his wife by Tony Noble who has his studio in Redbrick Mill, Batley Carr, West Yorkshire.  It was one of those portraits where you feel the artist has gone to an awful lot of trouble to compose and design the painting so that it includes very many clues to his character, activities and habitat.  It was almost botanical in that sense!  I also liked the slightly curious angle of the artist's perspective - which caught my attention.  There's something slightly 'fish-eye lebs' about it.  When I found his website I learned that he also has a work accepted for the BP portrait this year.  You can see both portraits on the News page of his website.

Alastair Adams' PRP portrait of Mr and Mrs Gapper  was also very fine - I particularly liked the portrait of their cat!

As always I loved the work of Luis Morris ROI work - this year it was a self-portrait.

There were a number of paintings of groups - and you gauge their size in the above photo.

It struck me that I don't think I've ever seen one of the groups win the Ondaatje Prize which is odd really as I always think achieving a good group portrait is much more difficult than a portrait of an individual.

The work which struck me as being very impressive was a painting of Three Sisters by Paul S Benney.

The Three Sisters by Paul S Benney
oil, 205 x 150cm (81 x 59")

and finally....  There were some impressive works which were entirely let down by awful framing.  I won't identify which but it's difficult to know why people try to impress with bad frames!

Did you know?  In June 1891 the society held its first exhibition. It included works by the members and also works from such well-known portrait painters as Sir John Everett Millais, G.F. Watts and James McNeill Whistler.

Links to posts about previous exhibitions: 


  1. Thank you so much for reviewing this and for all the photos (can't we have bigger pics please? - its all most of us will get to see of the show!). This is the next-best thing for actually visiting and its great to see. Shame about the 10% / 25% of non-members ! I wanted to submit, but didn't in the end.....
    Really curious about those bad frames now..hee hee....;-)
    Thanks again!

  2. another very informative post Katherine. I really liked the linocuts of Sally Cutler that you linked to her work is super.

  3. Thanks for this post, very informative as usual. I did a bit of counting too. I was particularly counting the drawing section. And those who were non-members and not invited were very few.
    But I loved the exhibition SO MUCH! I was walking around with a backpack for 3 hours!
    There were so many new artists and after enjoying all the pieces I felt overwhelmed, I had to ask The President why ALL the paintings on display can't be seen on a website or even a book, because left to me - there were so many good works, which are an education on their own, one just needs to look and learn. I studied a portrait of a young girl by Anthony Morris for a good 20 mins and I could almost breathe through his simplified process of painting, which to me is excellent! The World needs to see these works, they are amazing, but the President said it would be one of his goals to achieve that but for now it wasn't feasible. I hope it works out one day! I had to make notes in front of many paintings and even sketched a painting I loved of a man in a hat by Anastasia Pollard. So thanks very much for posting because this is all some worldwide bloggers get and that's why living in London is such an opportunity for the representational artist today!
    Keep it up Katherine-You are serving the world!

  4. Seen on a computer screen the skin tones are rather sinister in the winning portrait!

    I love everything about the Three Sisters and I agree with Sophie, very satisfying to be able to see these paintings and drawings thanks to your site.

  5. How interesting, thank you for keeping us informed, as I can't go to see the exhibition.
    All these portraits are fascinating, and I especially like the self portrait by Yasunobu Shidami, very impressive.

  6. Even more impressive in person - it's HUGE!

  7. @ Katherine Tyrell

    but you don't say how huge!

    I also really love contemplating that self-portrait and would like to see it in the 'flesh'!

  8. Found it! sorry, I should have just gone back and had a look at the size!

    I have a feeling that Lucie has done quite a few huge portraits too, let's hope it is the up and coming thing!

  9. yes let's hope so :-)
    I'd love to see the original too.

  10. Katherine, I was thrilled to see your review of this exhibition as it was the only one I managed to squeeze in on a whistle-stop two and a half days in London. My husband, daughter, her boyfriend and I were walking up The Mall on Sunday the 16th when I saw the poster outside the Galleries, and dragged everyone in to look. What a treat, I could have spent hours, like Adebanji did (it would have been so great to spot either him or you there!) but made do with trying to drink it all in in about an hour. Thanks to you, I have a wonderful reminder of it here!

  11. I am so sorry that I didn't see this last year. I was fortunate to be one of the non-members (from the USA) to get in (The Rolling Buns) and was at the opening. There were lots of great works and I want to thank for the review. Will you be there this year? I got into the show again with a painting called "Acacia and the Bowman" I can't get to London but we are having at twitter party to celebrate hashtag #RPS2011 in early May. Would be great if you could participate :)


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