Monday, May 04, 2015

Brits lose out in BP Portrait Award 2015

The headlines from an analysis of the statistics of the entries for the BP Portrait Award are:
  • 2015 is a record year for the number of countries sending entries - up to 92 countries from 73 countries in 2014
  • the number of entries has more than doubled over the last 10 years - this award is increasingly recognised as prestigious at an international level.
  • the move to 100% digital submission helped increase the overall number of entries (see BP Portrait Award 2015 entry goes digital and How to enter the £30000 BP Portrait Award 2015)
    • the number of INTERNATIONAL entries increased by some 53%
    • the number of UK entries dipped by 100 entries (-6.7%)
  • around 2% of the entry was selected for exhibition however:
    • only 1.7% of the UK entry was selected
    • some 2.4% of the international entry was selected
  • as a result, the percentage of UK artists in the exhibition also took a big dip. They now account for less than half the artwork in the exhibition.

Below I unpick the numbers and show you what they look like in charts and a table.

The reason for doing the analysis three-fold:
  • it helps reveal to artists who submitted work what happened in this year's entry and selection processes
  • it provides some feedback to the BP Team about statistics they might not have spotted in any analysis of this year's entry
  • it helps inform the decision-making of the artists who are going to think about submitting work in 2016 (Entry for the BP Portrait Award 2016 will open in November 2015.)

The sources for all the numbers are the National Portrait Gallery Press Releases in recent years.  That and me asking for the numbers! ;)

Total no. of entries

I've done a chart of how the number of entries have more than doubled in the last 10 years. To be precise:
  • the number of entries this year is 147% higher than those received in 2006.
  • the number of entries in 2015 are 15% higher than in 2014.

BP Portrait Award 2006 - 2015: Total number of entries

Balance between UK and International Entries

This chart shows the balance of entries between UK and International Entries between 2010 and 2015.

BP Portrait Award 2010-2015: Balance between UK and International Entries

This indicates:
  • the number of entries from the UK dropped this year from 1,490 in 2014 to 1,390 in 2015 - that's a drop of 100 entries or some 6.7%
  • by way of contrast the international entry rocketed this year from 887 in 2014 to 1,358 in 2015 - that's an increase of 53% which one assumes is entirely down to the introduction of digital entry
  • the rules limited entries to one per artist, which means that the increase in international entries reflects a much greater interest amongst international artists in this art competition!

What's very odd about the UK figures is that in other art competitions, the switch to digital entry almost always leads to a significant increase in entries (as per the international entries). The UK figures have not followed the trend observed elsewhere.
  • Maybe this is due to portrait artists in the UK not being conversant with technology and not knowing how to do a digital entry?
  • It's odd given that 2014 provided the option for digital entry so it's not like this was sprung on people......

British artists now need to be aware that in future they face increased competition. Below I look at the success rates of UK vs international entries in becoming exhibited.

Selected artists relative to Entries (UK & International)

The table below indicates that the percentage success rate for all artists who submitted work is very, very low. Typically around about 2% of the entries - and this is a figure which artists need to bear in mind when considering whether to submit a portrait to next year's exhibition.

2011 201 2013 2014 2015
UK entries  1,644  1,486  1,223  1,490  1,390
UK selected  37  40  35  36  23
UK selections as % of entries 2.3% 2.7% 2.9% 2.4% 1.7%
International entries  728  701  746  887  1,358
International selected  16  15  20  19  32
International selections as % of entries 2.2% 2.1% 2.7% 2.1% 2.4%

Comparison of Countries

I took the last five years and compared the countries where the exhibiting artists live in terms of:
  • the numbers for each country in each year between 2011 and 2015
  • ranked according to the numbers in 2015, then 2014, then 2013 etc
  • the percentage of total portraits exhibited over the five year period of 2011-2015.

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Total % over 5 years
England 33 33 31 33 21 151 55.3%
United States 4 3 5 3 9 24 8.8%
Spain 5 4 2 5 8 24 8.8%
Ireland 1 3 3 7 2.6%
Israel 1 1 1 2 5 1.8%
France 1 2 3 1.1%
Scotland 3 3 2 3 1 12 4.4%
Canada 1 2 1 2 1 7 2.6%
Netherlands 2 1 2 1 6 2.2%
Belgium 1 1 1 3 1.1%
Romania 1 1 1 3 1.1%
Italy 1 1 2 1 5 1.8%
Northern Ireland 1 2 1 4 1.5%
Australia 1 1 2 0.7%
Czech Republic 1 1 2 0.7%
Turkey 1 1 0.4%
Germany 1 2 3 1.1%
Poland 1 1 0.4%
Serbia 1 1 0.4%
Sweden 1 1 0.4%
Slovakia 1 1 0.4%
South Africa 1 1 0.4%
Wales 1 3 4 1.5%
Greece 1 1 0.4%
Latvia 1 1 0.4%
53 55 55 55 55 273

The UK Countries - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

  • the UK now accounts for less than half of the exhibiting artists - some 41% in 2015 compared to and 65% in 2014 and 70% in 2011. This is probably the most significant change of all.
  • England consistently comes top of the list of countries of exhibited artists.  In total 55% of the portraits in the last 5 years have come from English artists living in England.
  • BUT the percentage of paintings in the exhibition by English artists has dropped from 62% in 2011 to 38% in 2015. This represents a reduction of about a third in five years. This finding will explain to some portrait artists why their portrait was not selected this year (leaving aside any aesthetic and quality issues)
  • Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also seen a reduced number of artists selected for exhibition - with Scotland seeing the biggest reduction in 2015.

Other countries

  • THE USA and Spain are the two countries with a consistent presence in the exhibition.  Each has got 24 paintings into the exhibitions over the last five years.  Each has seen a pattern of growth over time with the most significant increase coming in 2015. 
  • the USA has doubled the number of artists from the USA represented in the exhibition in the space of five years
  • Spain has created a consistent trend for getting artists selected
  • In terms of continents in 2015:
    • 80% of the artists are from Europe 
    • North America accounts for 18%
    • Australasia (ie Australia) makes (I think) its first appearance with one artist selected in 2015

and finally......

Is it the diversity in the international entries or the quality of the portraits  submitted by artists in the USA and Spain which accounts for the significant shift in the exhibited artists in 2015.

Or maybe it's the judges? After it's always a question of personal taste. ;)

The competition was judged from original paintings by:
  • Pim Baxter, Acting Director at the time of judging, National Portrait Gallery (Chair); 
  • Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator, National Portrait Gallery; 
  • Kim Mawhinney, Head of Art, National Museums Northern Ireland; 
  • Peter Monkman, Artist; 
  • Simon Schama, Historian; and 
  • Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts & Culture, BP.

Previous analysis of BP entries

I've been analysing the statistics for some time.

More about the BP Portrait Award 2015


  1. I just love your stats and visuals, Katherine. Thank you for all your very informative blogs and the time you spend on making "our world" a more understandable place to be in.
    Estelle DeRidder

  2. Thanks for such a comprehensive breakdown of entries. One factor you have to consider is the expense of shipping from overseas, which is a significant deterrent. In my case it cost over 500 pounds to ship my entry from Australia, and will cost even more to ship back from Ireland. So location - particularly UK or European - could be seen as an advantage or benefit. It also plays a factor in the size of entries from overseas. It's a very risky business, and represents a huge financial burden if the painting fails to make the final 55. That may explain why so few entries from Australasia.

  3. Thanks Nick. The expense of shipping is something that is frequently raised by a lot of artists - whether they live in Scotland, the USA or as you do in Australia.

    However it can be much reduced if the piece is not framed. It's the size, weight and rigidity of the frame which makes costs escalate.

    I'm actually surprised that some enterprising framer hasn't come up with the solution. Then artists who have painted on canvas could send the painting on a roll to be framed in London in a rented exhibition frame and for it to be dismantled and sent back again at the end. That's got to be less than the cost of shipping!

    My framer does exhibition framing in rented frames so I know it happens - I'm just surprised it's not a service offered to artists like a courier.

  4. Nick - I should add - digital entry is designed to eliminate the cost of shipping for the vast majority of entrants - which is why entries always increase when digital entry is introduced.

    What's so very odd this year is how much the international entry went up and the fact the UK entry went down!!

  5. This is my first submission to the award, and my plan if one of my paintings ever got got in was to take it off the stretcher, roll it up, and have it re-stretched in the UK…except - for the first time ever - I used whiting in the undercoat and gave the painting a totally smooth finish, which would have cracked had I done it. As a way of cutting costs, I submitted with two other Australian artists who failed to make the cut. It didn't make much difference anyway.

    The previous entry by an Australian - Peter Wegner in 2012 - was a very small painting. Do you know how many Aussies have been hung in the past?

    Further to the breakdown of entries…there must be a threshold of how ever many portrait artists there are in any given country. Maybe the UK entries have reached that threshold?

    Look forward to meeting you in person at the gallery.

  6. Why do people entering the competition have to each pay £38? If the award is sponsored by BP, why is there an entry fee?

  7. Sponsors make a contribution towards the costs of an exhibition - they rarely if ever pay for the total cost of an exhibition or an art competition.

    However such a competition needs to aim to break even and should not reply on public subsidy - hence the entrance fee.


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