Tuesday, July 30, 2019

BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2019 (Part 2): Analysis

With the second part of my review of the BP Portrait Award 2019 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I'm digging deeper and looking in particular at various attributes of the selected portraits - and other reviews of the exhibition.

You can also read my earlier post BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2019 (Part 1): Overview critique

BP Portrait Award 2019 - one of the walls with more colourful paintings
At the end of my analysis, I concluded that it is so very sad that an exhibition which used to be a joy to visit has become such a shadow of its former self. The exhibition has, for the most part, lost numbers, size, colour and complexity from the portraits on display.

A collection of small and tiny paintings around one medium sized painting

Reviews of the exhibition

Reviews by the newspapers were almost entirely limited to the issues concerning the BP Sponsorship within the context of concern about climate change and the use of fossil fuels.

Apart from the latter part of the The Times review, these are NOT serious reviews of an art exhibition.
It’s not the pictures that people are talking about. It’s the sponsor. For three decades, the name of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producer has branded the BP Portrait Award. As a result, protest has become as much a feature of the annual awards ceremony as the announcement of a winner.
Thus far, however, this protest always stopped at the portico of the National Portrait Gallery. Now it marches right in. Gary Hume, who sits on the judging panel, as well as eight other artists previously involved in the event, have voiced their concern about what they see as an uncomfortable liaison.
Award comes amid criticism of BP’s funding and sponsorship of National Portrait Gallery The Guardian
  • The Evening Standard which has always produced good coverage for this award stopped posting after the shortlist was announced. I must say I continue to miss Brian Sewell.... 
I read them and concluded that I was not the only one convinced that the BP Portrait Award is losing its status as well as competent Judges, its normal gallery and portrait paintings in the exhibition.

What's Different? An analysis of the Portraits

Every year I do an analysis of the portraits selected for the exhibition in terms of size and type - and you can see the results below. This year's exhibition prompted me to think about a wider-ranging analysis and to think about doing more analysis of the exhibits over time....

The factors I consider below are:
  • number
  • size and media
  • type
  • composition
  • colour
  • subject

What's different? NUMBER

This is a record how the number of portraits exhibited continues to decrease - making this an increasingly less prestigious exhibition. 

Only 44 portraits were selected in 2019 - compared to a decade of between 53 and 60. It means the exhibition has been getting smaller and smaller. In my view it needs to get back up to around 55 decent sized portraits in every exhibition - or face a permanent diminution in its prestige - and visitors.

Comparison of the number of entries and the number of portraits selected 2004-2019
What this chart tells me is:
  • the number of annual international entries (blue columns) has peaked. Entry numbers are now diminishing. The number in 2019 was the lowest for 4 years.
  • the number of portraits selected (red line) was consistently between 55 and 60 for more than a decade (2004-2014)
  • there has been a significant (20%) reduction in the number of portraits selected in the last 2 years. 
Did the size of the gallery made available for display constrain the number of paintings that could be exhibited? It's certainly a question that's relevant....

What's different?  SIZE & MEDIA

Three large paintings in a sea of small / medium / tiny portraits
The major thing I noticed this year is how few genuinely large portraits there are.

There are a number that fall into the "Small Large" and "Large Medium" category which I've counted as large - BUT they're emphatically NOT large compared to previous exhibitions. 

I can't tell you anything about media as there is no information on the website.  We used to always get the nature of the media it is painted in and the type of support when you click the link to an image. However, as with size, this is not included in the 2019 virtual exhibition.

I will continue to whine about the fact that it is very unhelpful to have absolutely NO DETAILS attached to the portrait in terms of media, support or SIZE on the website!

Omitting basic information about size and media continues to be a cardinal sin for a virtual exhibit. Most people viewing this exhibition online are now unable to make any judgement of a painting without such information. To me - it's the same error of judgement of selecting from digital images for an exhibition - without any information about size or media.

Below we have a row of decent sized portraits - but this was very much the exception rather than the rule - whereas this used to be the norm in past years.

Three larger "medium" Paintings and a Large Painting (the winner) 
and a group of small and tiny paintings

Small and tiny paintings have always had a place in BP Portrait
Those who do them best also demonstrate competence in complexity.
(Left to right by Jeff Midghall, David J. Eichenberg (a former BP Portrait prizewinner, Daniel Nelis and Denis Dalesio)

In the absence of any formal information about size I've made some judgements as to what constitutes different sizes and came up with the numbers in the chart below.


The emphasis in 2019 is on SMALL. The chart below demonstrates how the number of:
  • large paintings have decreased by more than third (when you take group paintings into account).
  • small and tiny paintings paintings have stayed around the same number BUT now represent HALF the number of exhibits compared to third in 2018
  • group paintings - which are usually large - have more than halved in number.
  • 77% of the exhibition comprises portrait paintings which vary between tiny and medium sizes - with the emphasis in 2019 on SMALL.
Comparison of the size of portraits in the BP Portrait Exhibitions in 2017, 2018 and 2019

What's different?  TYPE

Comparison of what parts of the body is included in the Portrait


Unsurprisingly - given the significant change in the size of the portraits - there's also been a complete change in parts of the body were painted in selected artworks in 2019.
  • In 2018: around two thirds of the portraits (63%) included either the whole figure and/or the upper torso, including the hands
  • In 2019: two thirds (66%) are limited to just the head or head and shoulders.
In effect this has stopped being a proper portrait competition and has almost become a "paint a head" competition. Compare for example the online exhibition for 2019 with


In general, this is a very muted exhibition - with some explosions of colour in a very few paintings.

I find it very sad that SO MANY portraits (two thirds) have a plain background painted in a 'neutral' colour.  There are more plain backgrounds Three more artists painted plain background - but used colour to add interest.

While undoubtedly a plain background is a legitimate way of portraying a person, the BP has ALWAYS had a rich variety of backgrounds in the selected portraits - but NOT THIS YEAR - with a few notable exceptions.

More significantly there are almost no portraits with an interesting context / background - in very marked contrast to previous years. 

The following artists deserve mention for introducing colour and interest into their portrait backgrounds
  • David Eichenberg (who won 3rd Prize in 2010) has a fabulous crinkly gold and silver metallic within his painting of his daughter Eden alongside the metaphorical attributes of his painting
It was inspired by his paternal instinct of wanting to protect her from the effects of anxiety associated with adolescence. This is expressed by wrapping her in survival blankets while she wears dark glasses to defend her gaze.
Eden (Protection)by David J. Eichenberg

Dr Ronx by Sara Jane Moon
  • Helen Lee Robinson used a Holbein turquoise backdrop to her very fine oil painting of her sister Lucy.
  • Frances Borden (who won 2nd prize in 1998) used an equally impactful background with the red she chose for her portrait 
Resting by Helen Lee Robinson - one of my favourite paintings

Manresa by Frances Borden - a tiny painting - used for the Exhibition Banners and Publicity

What's different: SUBJECTS & CELEBRITIES?

Absolutely no portraits of celebrities this year - which I guess means less for the newspapers to write about and no hook to hang the marketing on.

Indeed as The Times newspaper commented it is in effect an exhibition of mostly very ordinary portraits of very ordinary people.

What I liked

The best bit about the exhibition is the way the Gallery has been opened up so that it can breathe and you can see nearly the whole exhibition - albeit only from just inside the door!

No longer does the Gallery feel poky. We can see architecture as well as portraits.

The gallery looks great - with walls removed
- but portraits which start feet above people's heads is NOT A GOOD IDEA!

I liked SOME of the portraits - but a lot fewer than in previous years - which left me feeling as if I hadn't really visited the exhibition. I kept looking around for more/better portraits

I'm writing after having seen it four times and it is so much LESS memorable than usual.

So - for the standout paintings. I'm going to list them and say why and then include some of the images
  • I very much liked the portrait by the First Prize winner Charlie Shaffer. It's a portrait which grows on you. I guess I can always be seduced by those who make marks rather than just apply big brushes or glaze because it's the way I like to work. This is very definitely a portrait which needs to be seen in person to appreciate ALL the reasons why it won First prize.
Detail of the mark-making and hatching within the painting which won First Prize
for Charlie Shaffer
Rumination by Frances Bell
  • I loved the Rumination portrait by Frances Bell from the moment I saw it for the first time.  It's classic painting of a sitter who seems to have a foot in the past and the present.
  • I liked Father with Partner by Marco Krauwinkel. First because it was an unusual topic - two middle-aged men who are clearly partners, painted by the son of one of them. Second because Marco is an excellent painter who nailed it in terms of how he put paint on the canvas and designed the portrait.
  • Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide was also an extremely impressive portrait of his mother
Left - Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide
Right Father with Partner by Marco Krauwinkel.

Plus the others highlighted above....

Where does this competition go from here?

Personally I'm convinced that the NPG needs to have a major rethink about this portrait competition

Certainly we need to see selectors which include more practising portrait artists of repute - selected from eg past winners

If they continue to downgrade the exhibition in terms of size and location and the regard they have for the portrait artists who work is selected (in terms of how it gets hung) then maybe they'll find that start to see the quality of the people sending in portraits declining as well.  Maybe it's already happening?

If the Wolfson Gallery accommodated three significant exhibitions a year, maybe the BP Portrait Award Exhibition could return to this larger Gallery and be changed to a different date to reduce competition with the notional blockbusters?  (Let's not forget that THIS is the exhibition which has consistently generated the most visitors to the Gallery over the years). 

Maybe we need a NATIONAL Portrait Painting Competition for just UK artists?
(i.e. for professional portrait painters living and working in the UK for all of the previous 12 months - as with the Archibald).

If an exhibition is to include portraits of celebrities then I'd like for it to be based on the same notion as that used by the Archibald Prize in Australia - i.e. that the people should be those generally recognised as having made a contribution to the host country.
'preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in the UK’.
Maybe the competition could include an ADDITIONAL PRIZE of the purchase (at the standard commission rate) of the best painting within this category for the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery?

Maybe the awards system could be revised. For example how about:
  • First Prize - as now
  • Commission Prize (instead of second prize)
  • Runner Up  (instead of third prize)
  • Young Artist - as now 
  • BP Travel Award - on topics related to sustainability and climate warming

My Blog Posts about Previous BP Portrait Exhibitions

BP Portrait Award 2019

BP Portrait Award 2018

BP Portrait Award 2017

BP Portrait Award 2016

BP Portrait Award 2015

BP Portrait Award 2014

BP Portrait Award 2013

BP Portrait Award 2012

BP Portrait Award 2011

BP Portrait Award 2010

BP Portrait Award 2009

BP Portrait Award 2008

BP Portrait Award 2007