Thursday, May 16, 2024

Royal Society of Portrait Artists Annual Exhibition 2024

I should have written about the Annual Exhibition 2024 of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) last week - but my "mega spring clean" rather got in the way.  

Suffice to say this is one of the very best RP Annual Exhibitions I've ever seen - and I'm very sure that those who have seen it have been broadcasting that fact far and wide.

In fact, it's so good that I'd be very surprised if the The Portrait Award Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (sponsored by Herbert Smith Freehills) is any better.

How to see the exhibition

You can see the exhibition at the Mall Galleries. The last day is 18th May and the exhibition is open between 10am and 5pm.

View of the East Gallery from the Reception area
- the semi circle is the commission area

You can also see images of the portrait drawings and paintings hung in the exhibition on the Mall Galleries website

I've also now posted my albums of photos of the work in the show on my Making A Mark Facebook Page - and you can view them there. These are:

  • North Gallery - which mainly comprises most of the artwork by those who are not members of the RP and who entered via the open entry. 
  • East Gallery - which includes some impressive work by non-members of repute as well as portraits by RP members.
  • West Gallery - these are mainly be members.
You can also see all the artworks which won awards or were shortlisted or received runner up awards on this link.

RECOMMENDATION: I recommend that all those aspiring to be selected for a future RP Annual Exhibition should pay particular attention to the following when viewing the artwork
  • this is a very competitive open exhibition. This year the RP received 3,500 entries (which is more than BP Portrait used to get!)
  • the kind of portraits selected for the exhibition - particularly those by non-members. Also note my comments below about how portraiture has changed over time and with this exhibition in particular
  • the quality of the artwork - which is very high
  • the media used i.e. there are drawings in a variety of media as well as paintings.
North Gallery

North Gallery

I saw the exhibition on Private View day - which is actually not the best day to see the artwork. That's because of the very high number of visitors which an exhibition like this generates. 
  • You've got artists and their friends and families, plus sitters, plus people who get invited to these things - like me. 
  • It is however the very best day for talking to people and seeing people you've not seen in a very long time.
Or in the case of Joshua Donkor, who I've not seen since 25th April when I met him at the RBA Rising Stars exhibition as one of the young artists shortlisted for the Rome Scholarship! 

I really liked his painting of his grandmother with one of her grandchildren - there are so few artists who can portray black skin in all the wonderful colours it can be - but Joshua can! I also liked how he built in echoes of the past in terms of photos which are suggested in the background. It's much more complex and layered than is suggested by only a quick glance.

He also received a Highly Commended Award for The de Laszlo Foundation Award for the most outstanding portrait by an artist aged 35 years or under

Worlds Apart by Joshua Donkor
(in the North Gallery - middle room)

I've been hanging on all day to find out who won what re the two biggest prizes for portraiture - but cannot find anything yet....

I'll add it in here later......

Review of the Exhibition

Overall, this is an exhibition which displays one genre - portraiture - of a very high standard - with a wide diversity of subjects, styles, sizes and media. 

It's very much changed and developed since I first started reviewing the annual exhibition 15 years go. (see the end for links to previous reviews).
The RP contains a broad collection of stylistic and intellectual approaches that continue to make a significant contribution to the ongoing tradition of portraiture in Britain today. The Society looks to uphold the values and practices of its long and distinguished history, but at the same time, it seeks to explore and develop new artistic models and perspectives. (Catalogue)
Given this exhibition is about portraiture, the artwork leans heavily towards realism although a lot does not try to look photographic.

I was very impressed. Some of the artworks were not to my personal taste - but the standards of execution were uniformly high and some portraits were - whether by RP member or open entrant - of the very highest standard 

The exhibition includes 241 portraits. Of these:
  • members of the RP are showing around about 100 portraits - and I noted not all members are showing an artwork.
  • There are 125 artworks selected from the open submission and 
  • the remaining artworks are by artists who have been invited by a member to exhibit. 
One of my tests of how good an exhibition is revolves around how well I can remember it after I've seen it. I have an excellent visual memory for things I like and with good exhibitions I can take a tour around and see it again in my head - as attested by those who have commented on my ability to remember particular artworks and where they were hung in an exhibition in the past!

Rather than review it the same day - or even the next - I often now review it a little later to see which artworks are still shouting for attention in my head.

This review will highlight some of these below

Commissions: the end of the "stuffed shirt"

This is an exhibition which aims to celebrate the best in contemporary portraiture. 

Interestingly it's also an exhibition where I think very high quality entries from the open submission have influenced members over time.

As I commented last year, the main aspect of the exhibition which immediately struck me is how much it did NOT look like exhibitions in earlier years which have, on occasions, had rather too many stuffed shirts relating to formal commissions from organisations. 

While understanding that:

  • commissions are a portrait artist's "bread and butter" income
  • this exhibition is very much a marketing exercise for members of the RP
  • most commissions tend to come from significant organisations who like to record the people who've headed them up
however it's interesting how the personality and the profile of the person being portrayed is now much more evident in portraits. In general, they are now much less formulaic as in "this is what we normally do..."

Of course, the more you show variation in how you can paint for a commission, the more you get more interesting commissions as people endeavour to inject their personality into the painting. 

One of the people who has led the charge to become more flexible in how people are portrayed is Alastair Adams who is a Past President of the RP.

This is excellent example of a portrait artist tuning into the person they are portraying. His portrait of Dr. Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists couldn't be less stuffed shirt if it tried!

It is for me one of the most memorable portraits of this exhibition. I absolutely loved the crocs and what look very muc like PJ bottoms - which reminds us all of how we can now do business so long as we are respectable on our Zoom conferences from the waist up!

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists
by Alastair Adams PPRS

Another portrait by Alastair Adams below is interesting. Despite the fact it's an official "commissioned by the school" portrait, it includes a table and chair used by Dr Arnold, (Rugby's most famous head master) a photo of his children, an elephant which represents his parents and a crucifix on the wall which references his faith - while outside the view from his office window is a game of Rugby to mark the bicentennial of the game of Rugby in 2023. I learned that it also includes a small portrait of a spectator who apparently would never normally never be seen watching a game of rugby!

I very much enjoyed talking with both gentlemen at the PV and hearing about the portrait.

(left) Peter Green, Headmaster of Rugby School
with (right) Alastair Adams PPRP
who painted his commemorative portrait
as he leaves to become Head of Gordonstoun 

The second portrait of Cressida Dick done by Frances Bell is, in my opinion it’s a much nicer portrait of Cressida Dick - so much more relaxed! You can see more clearly on this page about her oil paintings on her website. The first portrait was of Cressida Dick in her previous role as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and now hangs at Hendon Police College. This one shows her out of uniform and includes Cressida’s partner in life who was sculpting her at the same time and Frances’s friend.  

Cressida Dick by Frances Bell

RP Members Portraits - NOT on commission

RP Members portraits which are not commissions are often of people they know or members of their family. They exemplify, if you like, a more relaxed approach to how an individual can be portrayed.

Miriam Escofet with her portrait of
(left) Joanna George and
(right) “What will survive of us…” which won "The Smallwood Architects Prize". 

Miriam Escofet's biographical portrait is of her 93 year old father Jose Escofet whose work includes classic Spanish still life. The work includes objects from his paintings and includes a stylistic frame redolent of the still life paintings developed by the famous Sopanish still life painter Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 –1627). Its title asks what is left of us at the end of life. I recognised that the lemon and tea cup bottom right is her mother - who was the subject of her BP Portrait Award winning painting in 2018 and the still lifes of lemons painted by her father (You can have a fun time going through his website and identifying the various motifs she used in the painting! Alternatively - click this link and you can read more about what Miriam has had to say about the motifs and see them as closeups)

Portrait Drawings by non-members

There tend to be many more drawings selected via the open submission than drawings done by members.

I'm not sure why this is as some of us like drawings more than paintings - and at a time of economic constraint - one must always remember that painted portraits cost a lot more than those which are drawn.

These are some of the monochrome drawings in pencil and/or ink and/or charcoal done by non-members in the North Gallery. Note that the level of expertise is very, very high. This wall includes a drawing by Martin Burdon who was selected for the BP Portrait Award twice (2017, 2020).

Monochrome drawings in the North Gallery.

A drawing which stands out from the pack for many people was the coloured pencil of a wig maker by Curtis Holder - who won Portrait Artist of the Year in 2022.

Last year I wrote a very long and very detailed review of the annual exhibition. Having reviewed it before starting this review, I'm minded to say I have nothing new to say over and above what I said last year.

Which is another way of saying, I could go on at length but would probably be only repeating points made last year.

The Last 15 Years: Past Annual Exhibitions (2009-2024)

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