Monday, May 09, 2016

Comparison of the RSPP Open and BP Portrait Award Competition

Last week while viewing the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters I began to ponder about the pros and cons for portrait artists of entering this open exhibition compared to the BP Portrait Award.

You can read my analysis of the similarities and differences below - and my conclusion as to why more artists should submit to this exhibition below.

I think my thoughts were prompted by a seriously good hang of the seriously good portrait drawings and paintings in this year's show at the Mall Galleries. I understand this was executed by the Hanging Team of Simon Davis VPRP (2006)Antony Williams RP(1996); Sam Dalby RP (2013) - led by its Foreman Toby Wiggins RP (2006) who won the BP Travel Award in 2006

Portrait Paintings by Sam Dalby RP, Miriam Escoffer Assoc RP, Paul Brason PPRP 
and a portrait of photographer Don McCullin by Charlotte Sorapure
The team created a really good looking and impressive exhibition across the entire gallery
  • the institutional commissions are spread around the entire gallery - which means no "stuffed shirts" wall
  • portraits from the open entry are also now spread around all the gallery spaces. They're in every single room - including the major space in the West Gallery.
OTHER FBA ART SOCIETIES should pay attention to this very clever move. It means that there is no marked difference between the area where the members artwork hangs and the North Gallery which a number of galleries use for the artwork selected from the Open Entry.

The 'lull' in the afternoon between the crowds for the awards ceremony (and celebrities)
and lots of visitors who arrive after work for the private view in the evening

John Wonnacott CBE Hon RP with his triptych of his daughter and her new baby
Mother and daughter - Morning Feed, Afternoon Feed and Evening Feed
a contemporary portrait of a family with its latest addition
A view of the Threadneedle Space


Paintings by:
top left Liam O'Connor (sold) - oil on zinc
bottom left: Martin Brooks (sold)
right Mark Roscoe Assoc RP - The Faculty of Advocates NFS
- this is a remarkable portrait of 33 people who have all been painted meticulously
I also liked the fact that this exhibition includes portrait paintings of groups of people. I sometimes wonder whether those portrait artists who can rise to the challenge of a painting involving more than one person are in decline!

Maybe time for a prize to challenge the younger artist?

"The Second Sex" by Lantian D.
- this painting includes a self-portrait of Lantian D.
and her model for her her prizewinning portrait of Roger Scruton
She submitted a triptych of similar studies of people on the tube which was exhibited by BP Portrait in 2014

What's the difference between the RSPP Open and the BP Portrait Competition?

7 Similarities

Let's look at the similarities
  • Both are very prestigious exhibitions with very high standards of portraiture 
  • Both exhibitions have valuable prizes (see Prizewinners at the 125th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters)
  • Both have an open entry
  • Both get similarish numbers entering work. 
  • Both attract international entries - this year 243 entries for the RSPP exhibition came from Europe, the USA, Canada, Russia and Taiwan
  • Both focus on artwork in 2D.
  • Both get huge numbers of visitors
This wall includes a painting by Tai Chin Huang, a gentleman from Taiwan.

11 Differences

When we look at the differences, we begin to see some of the reasons why this exhibition maybe ought to be taken more seriously

Number of entries

  • The BPP is 'senior partner' in the numbers stakes. 
    • The BP Portrait Award had 2,557 portraits by artists from 80 countries. 
    • The RSPP had just under 2,000 entries from ? countries.

Number of portraits in the exhibition

  • The BP hangs between 50-55 portraits (just under 2% chance of getting exhibited)
  • The RSPP hangs around 225-250 portraits.  
  • Over 50% of the artwork in the RSPP exhibition comes from non-members
    • At least 110 of the 238 portraits exhibited came from the 'pure' open entry 
    • In addition to that there were a small number of artists who had been invited to exhibit by an RP member. 
    • Hence portrait artists have a better chance of being exhibited at the RSPP Exhibition - the average is estimated to be c.5% (110+ artworks out of nearly 2000 submitted)

Exhibiting Artists

  • There's a wide variation in the artists exhibiting at both show. A significant number exhibit at both.
  • For example - Benjamin Sullivan is a member of the RSPP (2003) and regular exhibitor. and is also a regular exhibitor with the BP Portrait award. This year he is also one of this year's shortlisted artists for the BP Portrait Award 2016 (see £30,000 BP Portrait Award 2016 - The Shortlist). You can see the drawing for the shortlisted portrait in the RSPP Exhibition!
Hugo Williams by Benjamin Sullivan RP
pencil and conte
copyright the artist
Lord Hattersley by Benjamin Sullivan RP
copyright the artist

Portraits by BP Portrait Winners in previous years

  • Only one includes portraits by past winners of the BP Portrait Award - and that's the RSPP exhibition!  Winners of the BP Portrait Award can never submit work after they win. 
Portraits by Past President Daphne Todd - who won the BP Portrait Award in 2010

Media used

  • BP is limited to oil, acrylic and egg tempera.
  • Just about anything goes in the RSPP exhibition. Additional media seen in portraits in this exhibition includes watercolour, pastels, conte, charcoal and graphite. From this perspective I know which exhibition I like better from this perspective as a result!

Nature of Artwork

  • Both include paintings - but RSPP also includes portrait drawings - and to my mind is a much more representative exhibition of portraiture for doing so.
Some of the Portrait Drawings at RSPP 2016
(includes a drawing by Sophie Ploeg - Winner of the BP Travel Award in 2014)
More portrait drawings at RSPP 2016


  • Both have a mix of famous and ordinary people as subjects for portraits. However the celebrities very often turn up to see their portrait in the RSPP Exhibition! It's just one of the reasons why huge numbers of visitors attend its Private View which lasts from 11am to 8pm with thousands visiting during the course of the day.
Sir Tom Courtenay by Isobel Peachey
regular BP exhibitor and Winner of the BP Travel Award 2009

Age of the Exhibition

  • The RSPP has been having annual exhibitions for over 125 years!
  • The Portrait Award competition at the National Portrait Gallery is 36 years old. It was sponsored for the first 10 years by John Player and for the next 26 years by BP.

Length of the exhibition

  • The BP Portrait Award exhibition last for much longer and is seen by many more people each year


  • The BP Portrait Award exhibition is strictly an exhibition. There are no sales. 
  • By way of contrast, people can (and do) buy portraits at the RSPP exhibition which are not the result of a commission.

Commissions & Collections

You can see how the RP members market their services as an artist who does commissions
in the North Gallery where there are folders of images/ artist statements / bios
around the central pillar
- underneath of the gaze of Will Self by Geoffrey Beasley (also a BP exhibitor)
  • The Winner of the BP Portrait Award gets a commission as part of the prize. Other prizewinners have also been commissioned to produce paintings. Hence this competition enables a few artists to paint a portrait for the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection
  • Any member of the RSPP can make use of the Commission Service offered by the RSPP in conjunction with the FBA. Membership of the RSPP can mean a stream of commissions over the years IF your style is one which is liked by clients wanting to commission a portrait. 


I'm actually rather surprised that this exhibition doesn't get more artists from a great range of countries. It certainly has a lot to offer.

More about Past Annual Exhibitions

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