Monday, May 08, 2017

Review: Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters 2017

The 2017 Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters struck me as being very different this year.
To me, it seemed as if:
  • there are fewer portraits of celebrities - or maybe the "famous people" are just more low key (apart from Melvyn Bragg!)?
  • the commissioned portraits of the corporate and academic souls somehow seem less evident - which is a good thing. I know the commissions are the meat and drink of a portrait artist's life but they have made for a pretty dull main gallery in the past. 
  • the hang is better this year. There's a better mix of portraits in the main gallery and interesting work in all three galleries
  • this year the exhibition also seems to have caught up with current times as it reflects diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender much better than ever before
  • a model called Barrie is in four different portraits. If you visit the exhibition why not see if you can spot them all?
The exhibition is being held in the Main Gallery, North Galleries and Threadneedle Space of the Mall Galleries between 4th May and 17th May 2017.

Entrance to the Mall Galleries and the Annual Exhibition
of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters
This is the third exhibition for Robin Lee-Hall as President and she retires at the end of the month. A new President will be elected at the AGM after the exhibition.

End Wall in the Main Gallery - portraits by members of the Society
Threadneedle Space

The small portraits wall in the Main Gallery - spot Julie Walters and Jo Brand

Exhibition metrics - and the Open Entry

Below is some data which hopefully puts the open entries selected for exhibition into context and provides some useful background for those hoping to enter future exhibitions.

In summary:
  • the good news: about half the portraits exhibited are by artists who are non-members. This is the standard I advocate for an open exhibition. The RSPP is way out in front of those exhibiting this year in terms of meeting that standard - so well done to the RSPP for making a significant contribution to the future careers of other portrait artists
  • the not so good news: only about 5% of the works submitted were selected for display in the exhibition. For would-be portrait artists, this means your work needs to be very good to get exhibited - and also needs to be a bit different.  Look carefully at the work by those of non-members and you'll see what I mean.
  • the interesting news: if you are very lucky, you may be invited to exhibit by one of the members. I'm not quite sure how this works and will try and find out.
  • the really important thing to think about - even if your work doesn't sell, you can still generate commissions as a result of people seeing your work!
All work by non-members
Left:  Ingrid by Milly Midgley oil 60 x60cm NFS - invited by Alastair Adams PPRP
Centre: Melvyn Bragg by David Vigor oil 125cm x 125cm
Right: Geraldine with yellow spectacles by Geraldine McClelland oil, 100 x90cm
These are the numbers (the "exhibition metrics")
  • There are 219 works hung in this exhibition of which 112 works (51%) were by members or associates
  • OPEN ENTRY:  1963 entries were submitted by non-members 

  • 102 artworks by 89 non-members were selected from the open entry 
  • The average number of selected paintings per selected artists is 1.1 - those having more than one work in the show are typically, but not exclusively, those who are candidates for membership - who typically have two works.
  • 5 artists were invited by members to exhibit one work each
  • The ratio of members' work to non-members is 51:49 - it varies from year to year but overall it appears that the ratio averages out at around 50:50
  • Open entries selected for exhibition: percentage selected is c. 5.2% (Comparison: the chances of getting a work selected at other major open exhibitions
The Selection Committee this year were: Jane Bond, Simon Davis, Robin Lee-Hall Susan Ryder, Melissa Scott-Miller and Antony Williams


Portraiture is a fascinating barometer of current trends and holds a mirror up to nature in reflecting life in contemporary Britain. RP press release
The exhibition this year is much less Anglo Saxon both in terms of the people in the portraits and the artists selected from the open entry. I think we might also be seeing an improvement in the number of women exhibiting.

There are lots of paintings of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds plus  lots of paintings by people who don't have Anglo Saxon names.  One of these is Lantian D who last year won the Ondaatje Prize. She has a fondness for portraying people sitting in lines as if on public transport or waiting for something and I like these paintings a lot. Passers by was selected for the BP Portrait 2013.

Top right: Shanti Panchal
Bottom right: Lover by Lantian D 50 x 225cm £20,000)
The exhibition includes two portraits for the MCC by Antony Williams RP (shortlisted for this year's BP Portrait Award). Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are both former Sri Lankan cricketers and both former captains of the Sri Lankan national team. Apparently the habit of the Marylebone Cricket Club is to commission two portraits at a time. I'm guessing their portrait gallery must be pretty impressive.

I asked Antony about the challenge of painting a different skin colour and he told me that it requires a complete rethinking of the palette of colours for the range of colours and tones required and how these varied in different light.  It sounded very much an exercise in acute observation. To me the skin tones were incredibly 'natural' looking and extremely impressive and the paintings are much more impressive in the gallery than on screen. I walked around the corner, saw them and "Wow" popped out before I'd had time to think!

Antony Williams with his portraits for the MCC

The diversity didn't stop there. John Wonnacott has a wonderful portrait of two brides in white dresses celebrating their wedding in his garden.

Two brides together in the garden dancing by John Wonnacott in the Threadneedle Space
To my mind, the RSPP has struggled with diversity in the past and indeed may have become out of touch with mainstream Britain. I know I've passed comment on gender issues in the past and I know they've been taken seriously.

As a Society, it now seems to be becoming much more relevant to the population of the UK in the 21st century across the whole spectrum of diversity in all its different dimensions.

Non-member paintings

As usual there are plenty of good non-member paintings in the exhibition.

Also this year for the first time, we have a one-off specific award for non-members. I think it would be a really excellent move if a suitable sponsor could be found for a permanent award for non-members work as it's so strong in this show.

I'm not a huge fan of the painting which won the award. I though there were a lot of portraits that were stronger.

One of these was Craig Wylie who won the BP Portrait back in 2008 (see Making a Mark: Craig Wylie wins BP Portrait Award 2008) and who entered a diptych which was very formal - but also very impressive.  He usually does very large boxed canvas portraits of younger people and I've not seen him to do a more formal portrait of older people before - but I liked this a lot.

Mr and Mrs Emerson (diptych) by Craig Wylie
oil 130 x 200cm NFS
In fact it was notable that there were a number of portrait artists in this year's exhibition who have been selected for the BP Portrait in the past, including prizewinners. (See also my post last year Comparison of the RSPP Open and BP Portrait Award Competition)

Another was one Ben Sullivan RP, last year he won third prize and this year he is shortlisted again. Ben is currently Artist in Residence at the Reform Club. This is his portrait of Michael Strauss.

I absolutely love paintings where you get clues as to who the person is - but nobody tells you. My 'best guess' from Ben's clues is that this is Michael Strauss, the former Head of Impressionist Pictures at Sotheby’s until he retired in 2000, the man who was instrumental in the formation and the subsequent sale of the British Rail Pension Fund Collection (which used to be stunning!) and who wrote Pictures, Passions and Eye as his memoir.

Michael Strauss by Ben Sullivan
oil, 96 x 48cm
Hero Johnson has been selected for the BP Portrait this year.  I see Hero as a potential future member of the RP as last year she won the Changing Faces Prize, was shortlisted for the the RSPP Self Prize in 2013 and she has two works in this year's exhibition. She's also been awarded the New English Art Club Drawing Scholarship 2016-17.

Paulina by Hero Johnson
oil, 120 x 100cm NFS
Somebody who I'm very sure will be a future exhibitor with the BP Portrait, and maybe a prizewinner is Emma HopkinsShe's previously received an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Award and the Bulldog Bursary and now regularly exhibits with the RSPP.

I was very impressed with her portrait of Ann Bates OBE (who uses a wheelchair and was awarded her OBE for her contributions to passenger transport for disabled people via her roles as deputy chair and rail group chair of the national Disabled Person's Transport Advisory Committee) and her painting of the skin of an older lady. It very much reminded me of the quality of work done by Aleah Chapin when she won the BP in 2012. (This is the sketch done prior to commencing the painting)

Ann Bates OBE by Emma Hopkins
oil on polyester, 129 x 83cm £8,000

What's really fascinating about Emma is that she started out making prosthetics and has taught herself how to paint portraits in oils. She tends to work her sitters to develop the portrait and she is alert to the special needs of those who may have a disability.

Paintings of paint makers

There are two portraits of people who make paint in the exhibition.

Past President Alastair Adams was commissioned last year to paint John Bagnall, the Chairman of Alfred Bagnall and Sons Ltd to celebrate 140 years of trading. Alastair told me that the firm, based in Shipley in West Yorkshire, is one of the premier painting, decorating and specialist coatings contractors in the UK. It's also a firm that has supported the Society in the past.

John Bagnall, Alfred Bagnall & Sons Ltd by Alastair Adams PPRP
oi, 62 x 56cm NFS
Two paintings to the left of Mr Bagnall is a painting of Michael Harding by John Williams ARBSA.  Michael Harding  will be well known to very many painters for his handmade Artist Oil Colours. I think we should see more paintings of people who make paint!

Michael Harding by John Williams ARBSA
Oil, 93 c 93cm NFS
I discussed this painting with John. While the level of detail in the painting of Mr Harding and his clothing is very fine and accomplished, the painting of the pot of paint just didn't work for me either in terms of how the paint was painted and the tones of the bottom of the put on the left hand side were wrong. For me it was a classic example of two parts of a painting being painted almost as seperate entities rather than as one painting. It was a very neat idea and an admirable challenge for an artist to give himself. It's just a real pity it didn't work in practice.


On my eternal quest for the quiet and neutral frame, you'll note that all the portraits I've featured have non-showy frames or no frame at all.

However, I'm afraid this is one of those exhibitions which sometimes really annoys me with respect to the frames. However since a goodly number are commissioned portraits and frames are not always supplied as part of a commission, I'm hoping the "awful frames" where ones commissioned by the client and not the artist.  I do however see advice on framing as being something an artist ought to be offering to a client.

I think artists could also pay a bit more attention to the framing of drawings. Take a look at these and work out which are the ones where you notice the drawing and which are the ones where you notice the frame and/or mat first.

More about Past Annual Exhibitions

1 comment:

  1. I was lucky enough to be at the PV with Barrie.
    There may even be five portraits of him.


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