Oct 1, 2010 | reviews, artists, portraits, art, exhibitions, paintings

Review: ‘Bp Portrait Award 2010’ At The National Portrait Gallery • 24 June ∼ 19 September 2010 •

Figurative painting isn’t fashionable in modern art and portrait painting even less, so it wasn’t a big surprise that most of the papers didn’t even cover the annual portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. There was a small flutter of interest in the fact that the prize had been won by a simultaneously compelling but hard-to-look-at portrait of a dead woman – the 100 year-old mother of the portrait painter Daphne Todd.

This was a surprising choice for the BP Awards which usually go to examples of the photo-realist style – every line and pore of the skin and fibre of the clothes faithfully rendered – that generally dominates the final selection. Second and third prizes this year went to this type of portrait, but in general there was less of it around than last year and some beautiful works from some talented portrait painters in amongst them.

One of my favourites was Thea Penna’s Lila Pearl, an immensely empathic portrait of a child that isn’t in the slightest bit sentimental. The little girl has boxed herself into a corner, probably refusing to obey an instruction to do what her parent has asked.

Thea Penna's Lila Pearl

Lila Pearl © Thea Penna, 2010, Photo © National Portrait Gallery

Another portrait that seemed to brilliantly portray a sense of childhood was Alex Hanna’s Sandy Watching (below), a portrait of the artist’s son who had just finished his first day at primary school and is shown sitting staring at the television. His isolation within the wide canvas, dressed in his new school uniform and with the hint of an open door architrave behind, seemed to emphasize his vulnerability away from the comfort of his home.

Alex Hanna's Sandy Watching

Sandy Watching © Alex Hanna, 2010, Photo © National Portrait Gallery

I love a portrait that seems to portray a lot with a very limited amount of detail and for that reason I loved this little painting with it’s broad strokes and limited palette: Geneva by Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco (below left). I also liked Quena by Eliot Haigh (below, centre) with for its beautiful paint handling and the rather old-fashioned blouse the sitter is wearing, that seemed to add to the impression of her contemplative and serious mood.

 Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco, Eliot Haigh, Alan Rickman

Geneva © Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco, 2010, Photo © National Portrait Gallery

Quena © Eliot Haigh, 2010, Photo © National Portrait Gallery

Alan Rickman © Raol Martinez, 2010, Photo © National Portrait Gallery

One portrait that grew on me the more I looked at it was Raol Martinez’s portrait of the actor Alan Rickman (above, right) Rickman himself is painted with a conventionally-handled thick layer of paint, which is interestingly contrasted again the blank ‘unfinished’ expanse of white canvas above him. The table on which he is resting his body is simply indicated by a line, deliberately undermining the ‘realism’ of the body sitting at it. It’s as if he is ‘real’ and his setting is overtly ‘invented’, appropriate for an actor who of course creates stories and narratives from a ‘blank canvas’.


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