Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review: 130th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) has only missed having an Annual Exhibition in just two years of its 132 year history. However, it managed to hold one in 2020 and and this year too - despite the circumstances.

 In addition:

  • the exhibition this year attracted 4,400 entries to the exhibition - including very many entries from international artists
  • it is the major portrait exhibition this year in the UK (due to the lack of the BP Portrait Award)
  • This year, it has the most valuable prizes awarded by any national art society in the UK.

The 130th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters can be seen at the Mall Galleries in London until 4pm on Saturday 15 May 2021. 

As well as the pics in this review, I'm also posting albums of my photographs of the exhibition on my Making A Mark FB Page - with comments on some - for all those who can't yet get to see the exhibition.

Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition - a wall in the East Gallery

View of the RP Annual Exhibition 2021 in the West Gallery

I certainly walked around the Gallery on Tuesday mentally making a note of the names of various artists whose work I know well from other places. These included the following - and I'm including examples of the work of some of them.

Preparatory drawings for portraits by Miriam Escofet
- including ones made for her portrait of HM The Queen

Three (rather sombre) portraits by Ben Sullivan
- who holds the record for the most selections for the BP Portrait Award
prior to winning it in 2017

Two portraits (on the right) by James Hague

A number of these are featured in the portraits highlighted below.

(This is all from memory you understand, there are probably more whose names have escaped my brain cells!) 

Lockdown Studio Self Portrait by Megan Hunter (see above)

Indeed, it might be argued, that a good way of gaining membership of this prestigious art society is to make a name for yourself and do well in other high profile portrait arenas. 

I also noted some high profile absentees from this year's exhibition. I hope this isn't because of unfortunate reasons.


BP Portrait is present in spades! 

As indicated above, there are a number of people who have previously won prizes with the BP Portrait  Award plus past BP exhibitors (many of them who have shown more than once) exhibiting this year. 

I tried spending some time seeing if I can spot a BP Portrait painting. I used to be able to do this until the preponderance of some rather maverick selection we've had in recent years. 

Simon Thomas Braiden is one such artist I'd like to highlight. I thought his portrait of Maureen Lipman was superb - and he definitely wins my prize for "best hair in the exhibition".

Dame Maureen Lipman by Simon Thomas Braiden
(BP Portrait 2018 / 2019 / 2020)

In addition, the very marked increase in the number of entries to the exhibition (4,400 entries) very much looks to me as if all the international artists who normally submit to the BP portrait have switched their allegiance to the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters - which augurs well for future entries next year before (hopefully) a return to the newly renovated National portrait Gallery in 2023 - which is some way off.
(see my separate post No BP Portrait Award in 2021 and 2022)

Lots of new names of artists new to this exhibition

As a result of the increase in entries, it was also very rewarding to be able to go to an exhibition and see lots of artwork by artists new to Mall Galleries exhibitions. Long may this continue - it's always great to see fresh perspectives rather than more of the "same old same old" which can get quite tiring when an exhibition has a high proportion of members' work.

Most of the North Gallery comprised artists who are non-members.
Speaking personally I thought there were a number of artworks which deserved a place in the West Gallery - which is the gallery most artists aspire to be in - and which members can get annoyed if they are not on the wall! 

North Gallery included
A complete mix of monochrome portraits from
two long-established members of the RP (John Wonnacott and Anthny Connolly),
repeat exhibitors in the BP (Simon Braiden and Martyn Burdon)
and five by artists new to this exhibition (I think!)

Lots of younger artists?

It felt as if the exhibition had attracted a lot of excellent artwork by younger artists.

I applaud art societies that understand that their annual exhibitions are not only the showcase and marketing vehicle for artwork by their existing members - but also a platform for identifying the up and coming artists within contemporary portraiture - some of whom will become future members.

I found the portrait below to be very striking - as was the theme - and the latter links well with the theme about contexts (and backgrounds) below.

Daniella hates her drawings by Roberto Gammone
oil on canvas, 60 x 90 cm

In the meantime, excellent artwork by younger artists is an excellent way of keeping older artists on their toes and only showing their best work in this exhibition!

One former President who needs no such incentive to display excellent portraits is Alastair Adams - whose grouping of portraits I can always spot from c.100 yards without ever having seen them before. I love the fact they are almost always unstuffy!

Three portraits by Alastair Adams PRP
- including one of a young Adams on the right


I'm a  big fan of portraits with context. While I understand why smaller portraits often have a plain background, I'm not so much a fan of larger portraits which do the same thing. The background offers an opportunity to say more about the individual - in my book it should be a considered part of the portrait.

Some walls demonstrated this approach more than others!

Six portraits - with interesting contexts and backgrounds in the East Gallery

The Walking Bishop by John Wonnacott RP - in the East Gallery
I always enjoy viewing his portraits
because they always have an embedded narrative


Childhood was the theme of this year's exhibition and it was great to see many more portraits of children in the exhibition.

Of course the issue for some artists would be actually having access to children. For some artists this would be a challenge during lockdown. For others, they had some they'd grown earlier - and doubtless they were also a challenge during lockdown!

Peter Brown's portraits of his children - on their smartphones

Portraits of her children (and self portrait) by Melissa Scott Miller

Below is one of my favourites. I thought Mark Roscoe hit it out of the park with his portrait of his three children!

Portrait of my children by Mark Roscoe RP

Self Portraits

Lots of artists submitted self-portraits - which is hardly surprising given the extent of restrictions on movement and the lockdowns over the last year.

One of the things which struck me is the atmosphere of the self-portraits was often downbeat and it seemed to go beyond the focus and concentration required for a self portrait. Hardly surprising, given the year we've had!

Interestingly, I understand this will be the theme for next year's exhibition - so this year's exhibition provides a good context for the standard that entries will need to meet.

Small self by Hero Johnson
It takes guts to paint yourself
without benefit of attention to hair or makeup

Self portrait by Geoff Harrison

[Note: I must have dinner! I'll come back and add some more pics in tomorrow] 

View of the exhibition from the end wall of the West Gallery


The Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Artists:

More about Past Annual Exhibitions





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