Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition - Unstuffed!

The reason for the curious title is that this year the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters has
  • finally lost its stuffed shirts
  • included more portraits of women
  • improved its hang
  • and members have painted portraits as interesting as the open entry!
It's quite a transformation!

You can read about the Prizewinners at the 127th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in my previous blog post.

This one is just about the exhibition. (Don't forget! If you mention "Making A Mark" at the admission desk you can get Free Entry for Two - normal admission is £4, Concessions £3)

But first some portraits by somebody who has been featured rather a lot on this blog of late

Portraits by Daphne Todd (centre plus two on the left) and Antony Williams (two on the right)
Top left is Daphne Todd's portrait of Des Volaris,
the omnipresent representative of BP on the BP Portrait Award selection panel
The painting in the centre has also had quite a few airings on BBC1 of late.

Exhibition Metrics and the Open Entry

The Selection Committee this year only had two people who were selectors in 2017: Simon Davis and Antony Williams. The rest were new and were Richard Foster (the new President), Andrew James, Anastasia Pollard and Mark Roscoe.

These are the numbers (the "exhibition metrics") 

There are 220 works hung in this exhibition of which 111 works (50%) were by members 

  • OPEN ENTRY: over 2,000 entries were submitted by non-members
  • 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
109 artworks are being exhibited by 92 non-member portrait painters
  • the big change in 2018 is fewer artists are being selected and more are being invited which I guess is another form of selection
  • the good news: around half the artwork in the show is NOT by a member
  • the bad news: less than 5% of the entry gets selected
  • the good news: which is better than the percentage selected for the BP Portrait Award
  • the bad news: however this open entry is more competitive than the RA's Summer Exhibition!

Open Entry

  • 90 works were selected from the open entry and exhibited by 69 artists 
  • The average number of selected paintings per selected artists is 1.3 - most just have one although a few have two or three - typically those who are moving up the ladder towards being invited to be a member
  • Open entries selected for exhibition: percentage selected is less than 4.4% (based on an entry of at least 2,000). This is a reduction on last year due to the increase in artists invited to show a work.

Invited Artists

  • 18 artists were invited to exhibit a portrait - up from just five last year. Typically those invited are artists who have been selected previously and presumably there needs to be a good reason why they are invited (see my example below). Also some (such as Gareth Reid) also had a work selected via the Open Entry
Changing Faces Commissions
Small wonder then that we have the very odd situation where
North Gallery - where most of the open entry typically hangs
In the centre are Carl Randall's portraits of Nick Park, the animator and Raymond Briggs the illustrator
Hero Johnson with her portrait of Sir Alan Parker - and her subject.
Hero won the Changing Faces Prize at this exhibition in 2016
and was shortlisted for the the RSPP Self Prize in 2013 
and was invited by Mark Roscoe RP to exhibit at the exhibition.
She was also selected to exhibit at the BP Portrait Award 2017
What's also very interesting - although I have no statistics to validate this - is that there seem to be a lot more international artists entering the competition - and the Chinese appear very taken with the RSPP!

On that basis I'd expect the international entry to keep on growing....

What has changed

Very few stuffed shirts and lots more women!

In the past, this main gallery has been full of what I would call the typical stuffed shirt portrait - male, in a suit, standing or sitting in a corporate context - for the organisation for which they worked. It didn't really matter whether they were bishops or bankers or vice-chancellors, the reality was they were on the whole very dull. 

This year this has all changed. The stuffed shirts seem to have reduced in number and those that are corporate seem to have been enlivened by the fact some of them are now women. Indeed the women generally looks like they are very capable and a lot more interesting!

Three portraits on the end wall in the main gallery
I loved the two portraits of women by Saied Dai and Alastair Adams either side of the Judge

In fact there's a lot more portraits of women generally and they don't look nearly so serious or fuddy duddy as some of those in the past.

I don't know whether the selection picked up on the change in environment and attitude to women in recent months - but it seems to me that whatever has happened has been for the better!

Out with suits (or off with the jackets)
- and in with yet more women and Michael Evis in his shorts

Lots more women and the only man in a suit is the visitor

On the whole the main gallery exuded a much more relaxed "vibe" and the discontinuity between the Main Gallery and the North Gallery seems to have disappeared.

I loved this wholly untypical portrait by Sam Dalby who lives and works in Settle in Yorkshire
and who very clearly demonstrates that portraits don't need to be set in a studio, office or home

Fewer Drawings?

There seemed to be fewer drawings - or maybe they were more spread about? Certainly compared to last year they had much less impact

Family portraits located right next to the commissions desk
Plus the Queen and Dame Judi Dench just to the right of Frances Bell's self-portrait
(who appeared in Episode 8 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 earlier in the year)

More multiple Portraits

There seemed to be more multiple portraits this year which I was pleased about. At last the exhibition is getting away from the solo portrait and now shows the potential private commissioners much better what can be achieved in terms of painting their nearest and dearest.

I think some of them must have been contenders for the NEW RP Prize for Portraiture which this year took as its theme "Friends".

Three multiple portraits in the Threadneedle Gallery

The Hang

Apart from the Drawings, I thought the Hang was much improved. I liked the clustering of the smaller paintings together in the Threadneedle Space - especially since this also provided the weight to break up and offset larger paintings.

There are two prizewinners in that cluster of smaller paintings
including the one that won the £10,000 Ondaatje Prize
Threadneedle Gallery - another wall of small faces opposite the one above
Heads and shoulders or upper torsos seem appropriate for smaller paintings - but less so for larger ones. I think that's a general rule of portraiture over the years.

I also loved the row of Artists working in their studios on the Mezzanine Wall. Note how much content they are getting into their portraits!

A wall of portraits of artists working in their studios - and I forgot to make a note of the names
but I do know the woman is Charlotte Sorapure


One of the really great reasons for becoming a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters is that you get your arrangements for working on commission marketed throughout the show.

In fact one might go so far as saying that the entire show from the members perspective could be looked at as a giant shop window about what sort of portrait the members paint - in what sort of style - and for what sort of price.

As a result, the Mall Galleries Commissions Service moves into the galleries for the duration of the show - and that means you can also check out how artists approach their commissions!

Commission corner in the North Gallery
with the boards demonstrating members past commissions available to view

Being exhibited in this exhibition - and maybe eventually becoming a member of the Society is very much seen as a goal worth pursuing by very many portrait painters.

But you've got to be good - and if you want to see how good, then you need to see this exhibition. 

It's on until 25th May at the Mall Galleries (more details)

More about Past Annual Exhibitions




  1. Here have a company in China, it is promoting exhibitions and competition of Britain that help Chinese artist submission and make money from artists,this is a business.!Why Chinese artists like to submit this show?because it is the called “royal ”. If it is not this word, no one will submit it.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this show on Monday. Many thanks, Katherine, for the free entry courtesy of Making a Mark, and for your perceptive review.
    I was struck by the quality and individuality of representation. The stiff, formal portraits weren't in evidence and I felt I was seeing a much more personal statement from each artist than in previous years. I found this exhibition more rewarding than the last BP Portraits I visited. The BP had a high proportion of photorealistic works which though admirable, don't move me in the same way.
    There were too many outstanding works to mention favourites, but look out for a small portrait called "Study of Nicole" by Michael Hyam, which is miles better than its photo on the RSPP website.


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