Each year the judges sift through the very best in contemporary portrait painting and somehow come up with a single set of pictures for the BP Portrait Award exhibition to delight us and challenge us. This year sees the 39th competition and another chance for us to visit the National Portrait Gallery to enjoy an exhibition of extraordinary range and talent. The top three artists receive the prestigious title and also some decent cash prizes!
I was lucky enough to attend a preview where the artists were milling around and available for a chat and a photo with their work.
My favourite portrait was by Vanessa Garwood and we had a brief conversation about my preference for the more interpreted portrait rather than the more photographic detail of some of the others entries, including the winner. She feels a portrait allows you to stitch together different periods of time and I certainly appreciated her portrait of a ballerina Francesca Hayward, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, in particular the contemplative face and pose of the model showing, as Vanessa said, strength and softness combined. The shine of the satin shoes and bodice and her use of muted yet striking colours also made this portrait stand out for me . Vanessa was an aspiring ballerina until injury stopped her and I felt that closeness to the world of dance in her work.
As with Vanessa, one of the great treats of a preview is a chance to photograph, and ideally speak with, the artist with their work. The winning portrait is of Miriam Escofet’s mother but she said it is really of everyone’s mother, a universal mother which was a heartwarming thought.
I’m taking this theme of the artist in front of their own work which is a family member a stage further with these next two photos. The photo on the left shows the artist Liesel Thomas in front of her own self portrait and on the right is Oliver Bedeman in front of a portrait of his brother Tom. Oliver said Tom was a good model as he could tell him what to do, not always the case with brothers!
The second and third prizes are my next photos, with the left one showing Time Traveller, Matthew Napping by Felicia Forte bringing us a burst of colour and a portrait of her friend Matthew . The third prize shown on the right is Simone by Zhu Tongyao, a portrait of his neighbour when he was studying in Florence.
The following photos are just a few of the other portraits which caught my eye from the 48 works in the show. It’s an open competition to anyone over 18 and is important in the art world internationally in its support for portraiture. Each painting has good notes about the artist and the work and some have additional ‘Talking Points’ which open up new areas for thought or discussion.
Broken Bodies by Jamie Coreth is of the artist’s friend Mark, now a sculptor but who was previously in the Parachute Regiment until a severe injury led him to leave and concentrate on his sculpture. The broken figure in the background references this and the sombre, limited palette gives an air of sadness and loss. On a lighter note the right had photo shows a matching model and dog in monochrome harmony, Tim and his dog Tick are great friends and Jack Freeman wants us to enjoy and celebrate this.
My final 2, although I could probably list all 48 as each one has something wonderful to recommend it, are another contrasting pair. On the left is Gifty From Shitima by Huey Glynn-Jones. This particularly appealed to me due to the boy’s sad gaze and the accompanying information which told of a meeting between Huey and Gifty when Huey was volunteering in Zambia. As someone who volunteers in Africa myself, I felt Gifty was a single boy in the place of so many disadvantaged boys I have met over the years. On the right is Sister by Zach Zdrale which he wanted to show the strength of his younger sister as a mother and a working scientist. I felt her strength and loved her challenging look through the glasses, so often omitted from a portrait but which adds appealing shadowing to her face.
For more information about the BP Portrait Award and the National Portrait Gallery do check their website but the good news is that this exhibition is free to visit so do go along and enjoy all the portraits: https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bp-portrait-award-2018/exhibition/
Full disclosure: I was invited to preview this exhibition but entry is free for everyone!