Friday, November 13, 2015

The Camila Batmanghelidjh portrait at the NPG

NPG website page  re. the portrait of Camila Batmanghelidjh
NPG website page
re. the portrait of Camila Batmanghelidjh.
Following the publication of the damning Public Accounts Committee Report into the funding and activities of Kids Company this afternoon I asked the National Portrait Company what was happening about the portrait of Camila Batmanghelidjh (its former CEO)

I've got a lot of experience and expertise in reviewing applications for funding for charities and then monitoring both their financial and performance management. I couldn't for the life of me understand how what had happened had come about. It seemed to me to breach every professional standard and basic system control in the government handbook.

I also knew what sort of conclusions were going to be drawn as soon as they started any formal investigation.

The contents of the report of the PAC report published today - 8th Report - The Government’s funding of Kids Company | PDF version( PDF ) - come as absolutely no surprise to me.  This article by BBC News Newsnight article The fall of Kids Company also provides a very good overview of the current situation and how it came about.

On a personal level, I feel extremely annoyed that the hurdles and controls which apply to all other children's charities were somehow waved for this one. Mostly for all the other kids who were deprived of funding that may have made a difference to their lives.

Back to the portrait....

I was in the NPG soon after the furore started about the funding issues and the closure of Kids Company and noticed that the portrait was hanging on the wall in the ground floor corridor in what I think of as "its usual space". (It comes and goes but this is where it normally hangs.)

I suddenly found myself looking at it with new eyes - and not liking it as much. I've always really loved the painting. It's so very unique and distinctive and it's also an excellent portrait. Maybe a bit too good given what has come to pass?

Interestingly today, I found myself intensely irritated at the thought of the portrait still hanging in the gallery and wondered how long it would remain on the walls.

Note: The portrait was commissioned by the NPG and was painted by Dean Marsh in 2008 as the commission he was awarded after winning the BP Portrait Prize. It's style is based on paintings by Ingres.

After the publication of the PAC report today, I wrote to the NPG as follows
I'm wondering whether the National Portrait Gallery is going to review the hanging of the portrait of Camila Batmanghelidjh within the context of the recently published report by the Public Accounts Committee - and today's reports in the papers and professional journals
Meg Hillier, who chairs the PAC, said the case of Kids Company 

“will anger many people. The charity was passed around Whitehall like a hot potato, with no one willing to call time on spending millions of tax pounds for uncertain outcomes”. 
It's a really great portrait but I'm thinking that the nature of the subject and the pose might be rather too antagonistic to all the good people who raise money for children's charities - which didn't get similar handouts?​
I know I've been very irritated by it when I saw it again recently. I think maybe it's due some time in the archives.......
The NPG kindly sent me a very prompt response.

It had obviously been pre-prepared in response to what I'm guessing are a number of other people asking more or less the same question.

So here's the response. The portrait disappeared from the wall for normal reasons PRIOR to the PAC Hearings and Report.
Along with other portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s Lerner Contemporary galleries which have been taken off display to accommodate the extended space required for the Gallery’s "Giacometti Pure Presence" exhibition, the portrait of Camila Batmanghelidjh by Dean Marsh is not currently on view. There are currently no plans for the portrait to be shown but the Gallery has a rotating displays policy whereby newly commissioned and acquired portraits can be seen alongside other portraits in the Collection which may not have not been on view for a period of time. The portrait of Camila Batmanghelidjh by Dean Marsh, along with most others in the Collection, have been removed from display in the past as part of the rotation policy. In the case of Camila Batmanghelidjh, this is not the first time the portrait has been removed from display since it was commissioned by the Gallery, and these previous instances occurred long before these reports came to light and it was removed then, as now, in order to make room for other portraits and to refresh contemporary displays.
I can certainly endorse the fact that the contemporary portraits very definitely do rotate - and that the Giacometti exhibition is occupying one of the corridors where they usually hang - and that this was where I saw the painting recently.

However it would appear from another response also provided that others feel that more should be done - and that the portrait should actually be removed from the collection.

So should the portrait remain in the Collection? 

This is the NPG's view on that question.
‘It is not the National Portrait Gallery’s policy to remove portraits from our Collections and we wouldn’t comment on allegations or investigations involving sitters in our portraits.

‘The Gallery’s remit is “to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture.” The Gallery’s guidelines for acquisition (established in 1857) state that it is “the rule... to look to the celebrity of the person represented”, and that the Gallery Trustees “attempt to estimate that celebrity without any bias....Nor will they consider great faults and errors, even though admitted on all sides, as any sufficient ground for excluding any portrait which may be valuable as illustrating the civil history of the country.’
My view is that an important investigation has now been concluded and reported and it's clear feelings are running high on this topic - for all sorts of diverse reasons.

However it's also very clear to me that further investigations will get under way soon.  I'm guessing that the portrait will stay in the collection - but may be starting a very long rest in the archives.

What do you think should happen in circumstances like this?

Here's what Jonathan Jones of The Guardian thinks - Is Camila Batmanghelidjh really worse than Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell? He presumably wrote the article without asking the NPG any basic questions?

You can find another comment from the Evening Standard here - Londoner's Diary: Kids Company boss Camila is so off the wall


  1. Portraits convey life in all its forms: the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly...and I don't mean by this the quality of the artists work. I think they should keep the painting, otherwise it just becomes censorship. I'm sure this painting will serve a use in a future exhibition...possibly about the abuse of power.

  2. I think that the post misses the point that the portrait is there because of the quality of the work by the artist. It's seems very unfair to him to remove the painting from the collection because the sitter's story is disliked. If a portrait could only be shown when the sitter was perfect then we would not know what a lot of dubious historical characters look like. There is merit to still showing the portrait as a recognition of the artists work but also as a historical archive to remind us of the downfall of Kids Company and hopefully the lessons learned from it.

  3. I don't normally allow anonymous comments but I've allowed this one as it's a different perspective.

    However I think 'Anonymous' needs to remember that we have a National Portrait Gallery - not a National Gallery of Portrait Artists.

    In other words it exists because of the people it is portraying and not because of the people who painted them. If it were the latter we would have some remarkable portraits of some little known people - but's that not how the system works.

    As the NPG's website states
    "The National Portrait Gallery was established with the criteria that the Gallery was to be about history, not about art, and about the status of the sitter, rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art".

    or as it summarises it on its home page

    "The Gallery was founded in 1856 to collect portraits of famous British men and women."

    My personal view if that I feel very sorry for Dean Marsh as it's a great portrait and wonderful 'marketing' for his skills as a portrait painter. This is the article in The Guardian Painstaking artist wins £25,000 BP Portrait Award after 10 years of trying about when he won the BP Portrait Award which led to the commission

  4. "The Gallery was founded in 1856 to collect portraits of famous British men and women."
    Camila Batmanghelidjh is famous, although for the wrong reasons as it turned out.

    Rather than removing the portrait, the NPG should provide some educational background information on that little plate next to the painting.

    Personally I never liked the painting. I always wondered why a contemporary person would be portrayed in an aristocrat manner (posture, composition, style)

  5. Maybe you didn't read the post in full?

    The painting has ALREADY BEEN REMOVED FROM VIEW - but only because ALL the paintings were removed from the corridor where it was hanging because of the need for the space for the "Giacometti Pure Presence" exhibition.

    The current questions are when it might be seen again in the gallery and whether it should remain in the collection.
    Both have been addressed in the post and by those commenting before you.

  6. Incidentally - a more interesting question might be whether she was ever famous enough in her own right to merit a portrait in the Gallery. There were certainly others far more famous than she was at the time who do not have their portraits in the gallery

    Or was this another instance of the Government or others who might have been influenced by her thinking this might be a good thing. Maybe it's the ultimate ego boost - to have your portrait in the National Portrait Gallery?

    I'd be very interested to know what the National Portrait Gallery's Fanous People Meritocracy Meter looks like!


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