Monday, May 20, 2019

Review: Royal Society of Portrait Painters - Annual Exhibition 2019

Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2019 - Threadneedle Space

One of the overarching characteristics of the 2019 Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters  is that ALL works selected for exhibition from the Open Entry are chosen by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. There are no administrators, sponsors, gallerists, art critics or other such √©minence grise who get a say on what gets hung.
Unlike other portrait exhibitions, this exhibition is rigorously selected by professional portrait painters who themselves have been elected by their peers to their Society.
I was really looking forward to this exhibition after last year when I raved about the changes - see Review: Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition - Unstuffed!

However I came away feeling somewhat deflated this year - hence the gap before writing this review. I guess it was because I had high hopes it would continue in the same vein as last year - and yet I felt that the "stuffed shirts" had returned and were a little too prominent. It felt a bit like it had backtracked to previous exhibitions about which I've been a tad critical in the past.

Below I discuss some of the themes of the exhibition for me
  • Stuffed Shirts versus Skin
  • The Hang - juxtapositions and themes 
  • Exhibit to Market - why this exhibition is emphatically a marketing exercise re. commissions
  • Paintings I liked - a very small selection of the paintings I liked in the exhibition.

Stuffed shirts versus Skin

I don't deny that an awful lot of the commissions undertaken by members of the Society are inevitably corporate commissions - on behalf of the sort of organisations which like to have a painting of "their leader" hanging in the Board Room or at the end of the line of previous portraits of previous CEOs or Chairs of the Board (or whoever) somewhere at Corporate HQ.

But this can lead to displaying an awful lot of portraits of "grey men in suits" - because frankly corporate clients like portraits which will "fit in" with their environment. The problem with the corporate portraits is that they then have the potential to put a bit of a damper on everything else!

I can't demonstrate this in this blog post as I simply don't photograph the "stuffed shirts" portraits. However if you take a look through the selection of portraits on the Mall Galleries website you'll see what I mean.

There again - and by way of contrast - the exhibition also hangs portraits which I think I'd argue are maybe less portraits and more figurative paintings on a theme which happen to include a figure. Are they portraits? Or are they paintings of models - and could actually hang in any exhibition which has figurative art?

Finally, there is the RP theme - which for 2019 was "Skin" which meant the stuffed shirts were hanging rather close to some pretty full-on full frontal nudes. Not quite sure how that helped the marketing of commissions.....

Different approaches to a portrait - legs akimbo

"Stuffed shirts" and Skin
I think the "Skin" portrait paintings worked better when grouped together
- they had more impact in their own right
I've absolutely no complaints about the standard of the paintings of different types on display - it's an exhibition with a very high standard of painting. However "stuffed shirts" next to "Skin" does seem incongruous and makes for a very curious juxtaposition - which can create a feeling of visual confusion.

It did in me. I developed a low level niggling feeling while viewing the exhibition that things didn't always hang together well.

That's not to say that the exhibition was not well hung. Some parts of the exhibition were extremely well hung - in part because the paintings created a clear visual theme and there was some unity to what was hung on the wall.

I'm thinking in particular of:

....the "female end" of the Main Gallery - featuring portrait paintings and drawings predominantly OF women or BY women such as Daphne Todd, Melissa Scott-Miller and Sarah Jane Moon.

A good mix of unstuffy portraits

....the drawings on the mezzanine wall

A largely monochrome wall - of drawings in various media and etchings.

....and the small heads in the North Gallery.

Small Head Portraits in the North Gallery

I also loved much of what I saw in the Threadneedle Room where there were some very strong visual images - both in terms of individual portraits and the overall look of the room - see the image at the top of this post and below.

A great way to hang a corporate commission and "small head" portraits with style - Threadneedle Space

Exhibit to market

The RP Annual exhibition is also very curious for having an awful lot of paintings marked "not for sale". This is because they are commissions and are being hung in the exhibition as examples of what you can expect from an artist if you want to commission a portrait - whether you are from corporate HQ or just a family wanting to have a record of a family member(s).

This exhibition is very much a marketing exercise to generate commissions and much less an exercise in selling paintings - although naturally those artists hoping to sell paintings won't quite see it that way.  As such it was not surprising to see so few sold paintings in the Gallery when I visited two days after the PV. It doesn't appear to have improved much since my visit.

In my view, the exhibition might benefit from a review of how they hang it. Given that this is very much a marketing exercise for artists who live and die by their commissions (well maybe not die - but certainly pay the bills!). Might it not be time to have a think what about marketing has to offer the exhibition.

For example, why not introduce some stronger themes
  • put all the stuffed shirts corporate portraits in the same gallery or area of a gallery - then those wanting a corporate portrait can view who, in their eyes, does the best corporate portrait which will suit their organisation
  • put all the portraits commissioned by ordinary members of the public of their families and family members together - to see clearly which artists like working with families and what styles are on offer - and then compare!

Paintings I liked

Here are a few of the paintings I liked

I'm not normally one for 'romantic realism' paintings (I make icky noises) but I do appreciate a great painting of a cat - and that's what My Dear Angus is about. Girl is pretty good too. Interestingly lots of people who are the subject of commissions also have a cat - it's a pretty astute move for an open entry by Sandra Kuck!

My Dear Angus by Sandra Kuck
oil on canvas, 61c, x 61cm (24" x 24") £23,500
I really liked Andrew Tift's drawing. The contrast between the hyperrealistic rendering of man and dog and the almost cartoonlike drawings of the various cameras really drew my eye and made it a much more effective portrait in my opinion.

I've seen his work before - and he always impresses. He was a regular exhibitor at the BP Portrait - until he won in 2006 (after the BP Travel Award in 1994 and 3rd Prize in 1999). Since which he has produced three impressive portraits for the NPG of Neil and Glenys Kinnock, Eric Sykes and Ken Livingstone. He also has a long and impressive record of exhibitions around the world - and work in other museum collections. He was recently invited to produce drawings for an exhibition to run alongside and support the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at Sunderland Art Gallery - which has just finished.

I'm not quite sure why he's not a member of the RP. I guess some artists are well past applying via the normal route to membership. (He was invited to exhibit by a member and did not apply via the normal route). Maybe the members might like to ponder on that one...

Lee and Louis by Andrew Tift
Charcoal, graphite, carbon and ink, 59.5cm x 84cm (23 x 33 inches) £9,000

Elena Vladimir Baranoff is a Russian artist who works in egg tempera - a medium I'm very fond of.  If you get up close, with a magnifier, you can see all the individual tiny hatching strokes which contributed to the painting of this painting. I very much liked the composition and the colour palette which works really well.

Awakening by Elena Vladimir Baranoff
egg tempera, 26 c 21cm (10 x 8inches) NFS

There's something absolutely riveting about Leslie Watts's self portrait with a tarnished jug in egg tempera also. Her Elizabethan collar and steady gaze - in line with the top of the white cloth behind her - coupled with that Mona Lisa 'smile' are absolutely riveting - so much so that I actually didn't notice the mastectomy for a short while!  The painting of skin in terms of texture and tones is impeccable - and I love the paintbrush held almost as if it were scalpel for peeling back the layers of her reality.

In my opinion it deserved to be hung higher on the wall such that her eyes met the viewers.

Leslie Watts is a 'class act' and a contemporary realist painting who lives and works in Stratford Ontario. I first met her at BP Portrait in 2015 when I took a photo of her with her very unusual diptych painting of her two daughters. She was invited to exhibit this year by Mark Roscoe RP.


Self Portrait with Tarnished Jug by Leslie Watts
egg tempera 66 x 46 cm (26 c 18 inches) NFS


The Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Artists:

More about Past Annual Exhibitions


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