Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2011

The National Portrait Gallery has recently announced that the BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2011 has been the most popular exhibition in the Gallery’s history.  I visited it on Tuesday - and the gallery was absolutely packed!

Exhibition dates and tour:  You have about just over three weeks left if you'd like to visit the exhibition in London - it closes on 18th September.  After this, the winners and selected entries will tour to Wolverhampton and Aberdeen.
I feel strangely detached from the BP Portrait Award this year as I was in Provence when the winner was announced - and consequently was not at the Awards ceremony which I've attended for the last few years.  Hence no photos of the exhibition or video this year - and it also perhaps explains why it's taken me so long to go and see it.

However I did go and see it on Tuesday afternoon and it was the busiest I've ever known it.  (You can see my attempts at sketches of the outlines of visitors on Travels with a Sketchbook - see Sketching visitors to BP Portrait Exhibition 2011 )

[Update (a day later):  I've also caught up and created the "selected artists" post - BP Portrait Award 2011: links to Selected Artists
BP Portrait Award Winner 2011 - prizewinners

Distracted by Wim Heldens

(oil on canvas, 750mm x 550mm / 29" x 22")
copyright the artist / used with permission of NPG

The winner of the BP Portrait Award for 2011 is Wim Heldens (Amsterdam, Netherlands) for "Distracted" (oil on canvas, 750mm x 550mm).  
‘I have been fascinated with painting Jeroen in all stages of life through growing up. Now, he is an intelligent and sensitive young man’.
He won the £25,000 first prize and a commission, at the National Portrait Gallery Trustees’ discretion, worth £4,000.  Significantly his work has previously been chosen for exhibition in three previous years - which is always a good indicator of some sort of prize in the pipeline.

I have to say that I was surprised when I heard the news and continued to be puzzled when I saw the painting.  It's not that it's a poor painting - far from it.  It's just not that, for me, it lacked that extra something which made it a top prizewinner.

Having not been at the awards ceremony and not heard any of the speeches I must confess I'd like to see more feedback from the judges in the prizewinners part of the exhibition website.

Moreover having seen the rest of the exhibition I was puzzled more generally as to the choice of the shortlisted artists and provide my suggestions as to what would have been my shortlist below.

Here's a Channel 4 News video of Wim Heldens at the Awards ceremony

The other prizes were awarded as follows:
  • Second prize (£8,000) - Louis Smith (Manchester) for "Holly"
  • Third Prize (£6,000) - Ian Cumberland (County Down, Northern Ireland) for "Just to Feel Normal"
  • BP Young Artist Award (£5,000) - Sertan Saltan (Connecticut, USA) for "Mrs. Cerna" 
See the graphic in my post BP Portrait Award 2011 Shortlist to see the absolutely huge difference in sizes of the different paintings.

I guessed right and Holly won either first or second prize.  However I confess I was very pleased that the enormous painting called Holly did not win first prize.  On inspection in the exhibition, there was just too much "look at me" in a very obvious way about this painting.  
  • Would it have been shortlisted without the monumental frame (which went way way beyond what framers are normally asked to do) and background painting? I think probably not.  
  • Should the prizewinners not have been listed as Louis Smith and Carmel Said?  "Yes" would have been my answer to the latter question.  
  • Can studios now submit work to the BP Portrait?  "No" would be my answer - but whether I am right remains to be clarified.  My recollection is that where there have been joint efforts before they have been acknowledged as joint and equal efforts - but I could be wrong.
Speaking personally, I hope we're not moving over to an era of collaborative work - I want to know that the work is the sole concept and original work of one artist.

What I noticed in the exhibition

Here's a summary of what I noticed in the exhibition
  • lots more self-taught artists are getting into this exhibition.  Some of these are extremely competent at painting in a technical sense over and above their ability to paint a portrait and generate that extra something which gets a painting picked for exhibition
  • many of the selected portraits are a little bit different from the conventional - it's worth studying all the selected artists to see what I mean.  You can also buy the catalogue for the exhibition.  (Also note that I'll be posting a link to all the names of the selected artists - with links to their websites - on Saturday)
  • there are some very large pieces in the exhibition this year.  Big gets you noticed.  I also tend to think this is good for those who paint small as a balance needs to be struck and the gallery still needs to accommodate roughly the same number of works.  However this year there are fewer portraits compared to usual - only 50 works in total.
  • a lot of the portraits selected for the exhibition are by international artists - from all over the world.  (See BP Portrait Award 2011: links to Selected Artists for the analysis.  Somebody explain to me why there are so many Spanish portrait painters this year!)
  • Artists whose work made me stand and stare included:
    • LaToya by Alan Coulson - the painting of the flesh tones is impeccable.  This is his second accepted entry into the BP.  I've been very impressed with his work in the past and I think he is very likely to be a BP prizewinner in the future at some point
    • Jade (The Reheasal) by David Eichenberg who won 3rd prize last year.  He combines hyper-realism and exquisite painting of the main subject with a much more impressionistic background which distinguishes this painting from the inevitable "It's just like a photo" type comments
    • Detail after Reynolds by JJ (Jeremy) Delvine - I liked the concept and I liked the painting. This is a painter who has a habit of creating paintings based on paintings from the past.  Germaine Greer took a potshot at his painting based on Whistler's mother in 2006.  Unfortunately he has no website.
The title refers to the practice of both copying and reinterpreting paintings.
    • I'm a big fan of unfinished paintings and consequently rather liked this portrait of Abi executed in a single sitting by Nathan Ford earlier this year.  It's very small but the treatment of the face is absorbing.
    • for me La nena (little girl) by SACRIS (Fernando) (Jimenez Espinosa) didn't quite pull it off but is very nearly a great portrait.
    • In the Morning by Latvian artist Agita Keiri made me pause and study this portrait 
    • I spent a long time looking at Jakub by Czech artist Jan Mikulka.  Although it's photo-realistic - which I'm not a huge fan of - I was very impressed by his handling of the very subtle and subdued limited tonal range in the large area of the face which is in the shade.  I'd love to know how he works.  If he submits again next year this one will be remembered.
I'd also very much like to stand and stare at a portrait by award-winning artist Benjamin Sullivan of somebody outside his family painted in a place which is not his home studio.  He's a very accomplished painter but I'd like to see the same range in his submissions to this competition that I can see in the work on his website.

My shortlist and top portrait

Personally I would have chosen a different shortlist.  My shortlist would have been three female artists!
  • Self-portrait (Triptych) by Thea Penna.  This was not one but three uncompromising portraits of the artist with that look we all get when we attempt to paint ourselves - note the wrinkling of the forehead.  It also has beautiful rendering of flesh and the tonalities of skin in side lighting.  You can see much better images of the triptych on her website.
  • R.H. by Isobel Peachey.  She's a very accomplished portrait painter in terms of rendering likenesses and has painted one of the best portraits of the Queen I've seen.  This particular portrait of a young man also draws your eye even in a crowded room with lots of competition. Her website is dreadfully slow to load - I can only imagine that the images have not been processed and rendered for the web and are full size.  
  • He who dares, Portrait of AP McCoy - the champion jump jockey from Northern Ireland - by one of my favourite artists Jennifer Mcrae. She paints fabulous portraits and you can get a better view of this one of McKoy on her website.  I like the fact that her portraits often include objects related to the sitter's life - in this case all the silks remind us that it took him 15 attempts to win the Grand National.  The colour is vibrant but interestingly does not outshine McCoy.
The portrait I would have selected as my favourite would probably have been the last one by Jennifer MacRae - although I think any of the three on my shortlist would have been worthy winners.

The top group portrait

I realised this year that what this competition lacks is an award for a group portrait.

Pulling off a great group portrait is not easy - in fact most artists would say it's a huge challenge.  There's a more complex composition to work out coupled with a need to explain relationships between the subjects.  Then there's the question of whether to give more focus to one or more sitters and if so which and how. Tackling this perennial conundrum had surely got to be worthy of a prize?

A number of selected artists attempted a group portrait.  The one I thought was best was The Shooting Gallery - Members of the Batley & District Gun Club by Tony Noble.  Not least because this is 16 separate portraits mounted together to create one composite portrait.  You can see the individual portraits and the composite on his website.  He's adopted a style of painting and a colour palette which simplifies the image of each while at the same time tying them all together when assembled

The BP Portrait Award 2011 book was published in June and includes over 55 colour illustrations - price £8.99 (paperback) but very sadly does NOT include the explanations which you can see in the exhibition and on the website.  I think this is a mistake.


This is the 32nd year of The Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery.  It aims to encourage artists to focus upon, and develop, the theme of painted portraiture within their work. It's also the 22nd year of its sponsorship by BP.
The competition was judged anonymously from original paintings by this year’s panel:
  • Sandy Nairne, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London (Chair)
  • Paul Emsley, Artist, BP Portrait Award First Prize Winner 2007
  • Jonathan Jones, Art Critic, The Guardian
  • Iwona Blazwick OBE, Director, Whitechapel Gallery, London
  • Rosie Broadley, Associate Contemporary Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP


  1. Thanks Katherine, this is a great review of the show. I have to say I agree with you on the overall winner. It is an accomplished piece but didn't seem to stop me in my tracks. My favourites tended to veer away from the photorealistic (which leave me a little cold), preferring the likes of Nathan Ford's small study which seemed to have bags of energy. I also liked the more somewhat haunting but compelling portrait of Katherine (and Millie) by Barbara Skingle. I too enjoy seeing Jennifer Mcrae's colourful work...such a light touch.

    My biggest issue was with some of the giant paintings that took up vast amounts of wall space. In particular, the gigantic beach painting with nudes sprawled everywhere seemed quite out of place in a portrait show.

  2. Thanks for the comments David

    The gigantic beach painting will feature in an upcoming post - and is NOT part of the BP Portrait Exhibition 2011.

    This painting was produced by the winner of the BP portrait Award 2010 and the space it occupies is about the same as that normally taken up by the winner of the Travel Award - so there was no space lost to potential Portrait exhibition entrants!

    I was fascinated to see I was in the video which accompanies it (re last year's awards ceremony)! :)

  3. I agree with you Mark about the winner. His was good though not noticeably better than the others. I loved the textured painting of the two black sisters standing against the wall. I thought that that image really captured modern-day Britain. I also think that that the more life-like the painting (I am talking about the photorealistic paintings), the less 'life' they seemed to have. Odd.


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