A London newspaper vendor gazes out at us, a professional Prince Charles lookalike poses near the workers in a busy noodle bar, a daughter’s separation from her father and a sleeping husband lie just around the corner from Derren Brown and his pet parakeet Rasputin. These are among the 55 paintings currently on display in the BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
The award is organised annually by the National Portrait Gallery in London, where the exhibition made its debut over the summer before arriving in Edinburgh earlier this month.
Described as 'the world’s most prestigious portrait competition' and seen by more than 350,000 people each year, the award was originally designed for young artists in a bid to encourage emerging talent and to promote the genre of portraiture. Since 2007 however, it has been opened up to adults and this year 2,187 entries were received from 74 different countries.
Submissions must be painted within the previous year and directly in front of the sitter; something which is visible in the life emanating from the works. Four winners are chosen by the panel of judges, with the First Prize of £25,000 and a commission for the National Portrait Gallery this year being awarded to 26-year old Aleah Chapin for Auntie.
The young Brooklyn-based painter chose to depict a family friend who has known her since birth, commenting on the smiling, nude portrait that, “Her body is a map of her journey through life. In her, I see the personification of strength through an unguarded and accepting presence.” A large amount of the portraits depict friends or family of the painters, people whom they know intimately rather than the famous faces which often dominate portrait galleries.
Curator and cultural historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, who sat on this year’s panel, comments that he was looking for portraits with technical competence, but also with “a kind of electric narrative,” adding that, “If someone paints you in that adoring way, it’s as much to do with the visual likeness as to do with the love obvious from the picture, and you want to know that person and I think that is the thing about really, truly great portraiture.”
The Young Artist Prize went this year to Welsh artist Jamie Routley for Tony Lewis, his triptych of a London newspaper seller. The BP Travel Award is also given to the work of 2011 winner Jo Fraser, who journeyed to the Cuzco region of Peru to depict its textile workers, and is also on display. The Award’s organisers are keen to engage in a dialogue with the public, and ask that we vote for our favourite with the Visitor’s Choice.
In London, the exhibition was well-received and awarded three stars by both The Times and The Independent. The latter noted that the photorealist style in which a large number of the portraits are rendered can give the impression that “we are looking at a body, not a person.” However, it agrees that the outstanding works of the show “go beyond plodding pathology and reveal a living, breathing being.”
The exhibition now travels to Scotland every year, alternately showing in Edinburgh and at the Aberdeen Art Gallery. The 2012 selection notably features three alumni of the Glasgow School of Art, two of ECA and Louise Pragnell, a former ECA and University of Edinburgh student. Following its display in the Dean Gallery in 2009, this year marks the Award’s return to the newly-refurbished Portrait Gallery and as Casely-Hayford commends, it looks “pretty spectacular up here.”
He concludes that this award “absolutely explodes” the idea that portraiture is dull or dying out, affirming that it is “not just alive and well, but I think it’s such a dynamic discipline, such an interesting area of painting, I think it’s got a very rich future.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by an introduction to the Award given by Julie Lawson, Chief Curator at the Portrait Gallery on 13 December. The BP Portrait Award will be in Edinburgh until the 27 January, after which it will move to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter.