Thursday, March 09, 2023

Review: £10,000 Commission for Landscape Artist of the Year 2023

This post is about:

  • the challenge of the Landscape Artist of the Year commission
  • the Commission Programme
  • the Commission Painting produced by the winner of Landscape Artist of the Year 2023.

This week I went to Greenwich to view the £10,000 Commission Painting painted by Finn Campbell-Notman as winner of Landscape Artist of the Year 2023 for the Royal Museums Greenwich. 

You can find photographs of the painting hung in the Queen's House below.

The LAOTY 2023 Commission

Like many others I watched last week's programme about the development of the Commission with interest. (It followed on from the programme about the Final). 

For me, it threw up so very many questions - which I'd been asking myself all the way through the series

Personally I thought that the commission might be described as "a poisoned chalice"! Sounds good - until you start to think about how to do it!

So what was the commission and when did the artists find out what it was?

I've heard from artists participating in the series, including at least one of the finalists, that NOBODY knew what the commission was until after the competition finished and the winner was announced. 

I've talked to other artists from previous series about this and nobody knew what their commission was until they'd got to the point where they needed to know. 

The programme suggested that even the Judges didn't know what the Commission was!

According to Robert Bligh, the Senior Curator: World and Maritime History at the National Maritime Museum - who is presumably not somebody who often commissions paintings - the commission was as follows...
A contemporary seascape and maritime painting inspired by the lives and work of the Van De Veldes
The rationale was that the NMM was holding an exhibition at the Queens House in 2023 - which opened last week - to mark the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Van De Veldes - Elder (father) and Younger (son) in 1672 in Greenwich as leading maritime artists. (I'll be writing my review of the exhibition next week having viewed it for the second time on Monday).

What I shall never ever understand about this series - and irritated me throughout - was that the commission as presented bore no relation to either:
  • locations chosen
  • knowledge / skills of the various participating artists
The fact that each programme, when broadcast, was prefaced by the announcement of the prize commission for the winner (i.e. commission for the National Maritime Museum relating to the Van de Veldes Exhibition in Greenwich) 

However - and it cannot be repeated too much - the subject and scope of the prize commission was NOT KNOWN BY THE ARTISTS at any time during the course of the competition! Or it would appear any of the people making the programme!!

Which means:
  • only one of the locations related in any way to the commission i.e. Lough Neagh is an inland sea like one which exists in the Netherlands - but is also tidal.
  • none of the artists were really tested in relation to painting water - except in the last heat. The opportunities that Blackpool and Castle Ward presented were wasted as the pods focused on structures rather than the sea.

The Commission Programme

As well as a commission, Finn Campbell-Notman also had to make a television programme about working out how to do the commission!

So he talked - and painted and sketched - his way through:
  • Viewing drawings and paintings of the Van de Veldes in the collection at Greenwich
  • visiting various places in the Netherlands" 
    • from Leiden where Willem Van de Velde the Elder was born in 1611 
    • to Amsterdam where he moved to follow the ships and where Finn drew a 17th century ship boat in a harbour - and found out how difficult it is to draw never mind paint when the boat is constantly moving with the wind!
    • then on to Hoorn - which used to be a port, where he met Tai
    • then out to the very flat land and IJsselmeer formerly known as the Zuider Zee - it changed from a shallow bay of the North Sea to an inland lake after construction work in the 20th century - which means it is not tidal
    • and finally to the North Sea Coast - and tides! - and Texel Island where one of the battles in the third Anglo-Dutch War happened - except it was the hottest day of the year and the sea was dead calm and the sky was a flat piecing blue!

and then he returned home to paint the commission in a loaned barn on a friend's farm.

So lots of effort and time collecting material. Plus lots of time being filmed and talking to camera - which I thought Finn did very well. 
TIP: Think about how you are talking to camera if you want to win! I think this bit is something maybe people don't think about too much when they enter the competition. One of the functions of Presenters and Judges asking questions of artists while painting is to see whether or not artists can be relaxed in front of cameras and then talk to camera about their artwork and how they work, or record sound afterwards and do ditto. that's because at the end of the series there's an episode which requires a lot of articulate input from the artist.

So far as the Commission Programme was concerned, it was interesting and I liked the landscapes despite the fact they were flat. However I wish they'd put as much effort into the heat locations as they did in getting Finn to travel across the Netherlands and meet various people.  

The Commission Painting

The focus of the commission

To recap, the commission had three aspects which needed to be covered:
  • contemporary seascape i.e. which very much suggests to me they didn't want a mocked up sea battle
  • a maritime painting - i.e. associated with the sea - which to me (as a regular reviewer of the artwork in the Royal Society of Marine Artists) means it can include boats/ships but not necessarily 
Marine art or maritime art is a form of figurative art that portrays or draws its main inspiration from the sea.
  • inspired by the lives and work of the Van de Veldes i.e. presumably echoes something of their style?
Which means, if you're a painter you're more or less limited to Van de Velde the Younger as he was the painter whereas his father was the draughtsman and recorder of maritime battles. He would have really suited anybody who won who drew!

Bottom line - a contemporary interpretation of the relationship of the Van de Veldes to Anglo-Dutch relations (and battles) in the 17h century (i.e. what they drew and painted) - and something to do with the sea.

However has Finn correctly identified including any ship / boat within the painting is more likely to date the painting and distance it from the Van der Veldes.

Deadlines to Meet 

I'm not sure how long he had to paint the painting but I know from others who've received the commission it's typically not long given they need to finish filming the series. In this instance I think he maybe had longer as the exhibition which it was associated with did not open until 2nd March. Which makes me think there was possibly no rush to finish the commission programme and he may well have had longer.

I do remember one of the people at the Queens House, when I asked about the Commission Painting, saying they had no idea they would be sending Finn off to spend a week outside in the Netherlands during the massive heatwave last summer! That's one of the challenges of a commission - keeping going when you have a deadline to meet!

The big question 

"Does it need to include a ship?" That's the one I'd have been asking very early. 

If I'd been the makers of the programme AND if I'd had the scope of the commission in advance, I'd have 
  • told ALL the artists what the commission was in advance of the heats - preferably in the Call for Entries (it is, after all, just a question of planning ahead and organisation!)
  • located all the heats on the coast in areas of flattish land (which Blackpool was - but East Anglia would have been better still - given it face the Netherlands!)
  • presented them with lots of opportunities to paint the topography of flat land, sea, harbours, tides and flooding, big skies and weather - with or without boats!
Can you now see why LAOTY took them to the 
  • Thames Barrier for the Semi-Finals - a contemporary response to tidal flooding on a river the Van de Veldes would know very well? and 
  • Dungeness - for the Commissions - very flat land near the sea, just across the channel from the Netherlands?
  • Portmerion - however I think somebody forgot to tell the Director and Pod People that  has a stone ship with masts in the harbour!!
NOT telling ANY of the artists what the commission was - to my mind, very unfair to at least one if not more artists who might have painted differently if they'd known.

'Fail We May, Sail We Must’

So on to the painting itself - which is titled "Fail We May, Sail We Must" which I gather is a line in a song.

I liked 
  • the fact the programme showed us quite a lot of his process as he developed his ideas.
  • Finn's use of a mood board for all his photographs, sketches and designs which was a very good idea for something as complex and challenging as this commission.
I also very much liked the fact he went big. To my mind if you're being paid £10,000 for a commission and your time you shouldn't be painting small!

HOWEVER, it's very disappointing when viewing the painting at the Queen's House, that we can't get a good view of this painting from the front, due to the glass case with boats in. You can see it close up - but not if standing back.

Also being glazed (because it is not yet varnished), so when looked at from the side it was easy for reflections to get in the way.

Fail We May, Sail We Must by Finn Campbell Notman

I knew it would have a good composition because Finn is a very experienced illustrator and they're almost invariably very good at design and composition.

The Commission (on the right)
hanging in Contemporary Marine Painting Gallery
of the Queen's House in Greenwich

Having seen it, I thought 
  • it walked the tightrope associated with that particular commission really well. I wasn't bothered by the absence of notable ships;
  • to my mind the palette used was more Finn Campbell Notman (he likes browns - a lot whereas I'm a fan of rather more colour in paintings) than Van der Veldes - which is not to say they didn't paint brownish paintings on occasion; 
  • the clouds were good - if very odd considering the state of the water;
  • the very calm water was not very Van der Velde. Most of their drawings and paintings have sea which is a good deal more lively - so that felt odd too;
  • While I like the overall effect, I wasn't a huge fan of the use of paint - which is very, very thin - as in I can see the canvas very clearly, which I don't like. I like paint which fills the canvas and is a bit more substantial. On the other hand I suppose thin paint dries faster.
Overall I think I probably appreciated the resolution of the challenge and the idea and composition more than the actual painting. 

If you want to visit the painting, you need to go to this door on the ground floor Great Hall of the Queens House where the Contemporary Marine Painting is exhibited. It's right underneath the door where the Van De Veldes Exhibition starts.

Door to the Contemporary Marine Painting on ground floor
beneath door to Van de Veldes Exhibition on the First Floor
of the Queens House in Greenwich (below)

The Queen's House in Greenwich on Monday this week

In creating a contemporary response to the commission as defined I tried to think of what were the alternatives to the decisions Finn made.

If it was down to me I think I might have been very inclined to focus on the Van de Veldes time in Britain and specifically Greenwich
  • ignore the Netherlands altogether and do something related to arriving in England or at the Queens House to become artists for the King
  • Or maybe reflected on the change in the nature of shipping between the Netherlands and Britain?
  • or painted Sole Bay (the site of one of the great sea battles) - off Southwold - as it is today?
  • or the view from their studio - up the hill to the Greenwich Observatory, 
  • or the view from next to the Observatory back down to their studio in the Queens House with the tidal River Thames in the distance
This was my version when sketching from the top of Greenwich Hill in September 2012, when the Olympics were being held in Greenwich Park and you couldn't quite see the Queen's House and the windows of their studio!

Greenwich Hill Panorama

Doubtless a lot of you could also come up with your own ideas.....

Previous Landscape Artist of the Year Commissions

I've only done reviews of the commission paintings in the last two years.


The programme is broadcast by Sky Arts ( available on Sky, Now TV and Channel 11 on Freeview) and the films are made by Storyvault Films.

Landscape Artist of the Year 2024

For all those interested in entering the series which will be filmed this summer - see my blog post about Call for Entries: Landscape Artist of the Year 2024 (Series 9)

The closing date for submissions is NOON on Friday 28th April 2023.

2023 series

All my reviews of the episodes in Series 8 include themes for reference by future participants - or plein air painters working to a time frame - in terms of problems experienced and challenges overcome.

I'll be archiving the reviews of each episode in the reference section at the end of each episode.

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