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(c) Alan Coulson

National Portrait Gallery: BP Portrait Award 2017

5 July 2017 Will Rathbone

The annual BP Portrait Award has been running at the National Portrait Gallery for 38 years, and whittles down over 2,500 entries from 87 countries to a final selection of 53 works. This year’s winner, Benjamin Sullivan’s ‘Breech!’ is displayed alongside second and third place, and the winners of the Young Artist and Travel Awards. It’s a must-see annual event for anyone with an interest in portraiture and people.

There’s something about portraiture that has long held a fascination with people. The BP Award mixes together famous sitters with ordinary people, fellow artists with family members or close friends. There’s an air of mystery behind a portrait. Who are they? What is their relationship with the artist? A portrait captures a mood, and conjures a sense of personality and force of nature. It’s a private moment publicly displayed; extremely intimate yet open to all.

The winning portrait, Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, typifies this balance. The oil painting shows his wife breastfeeding their eight month old daughter, and is a tender depiction of the maternal bond. Sullivan painted the portrait at a time when “a sense of calm had descended after the usual period of disarrangement that new parents face”. That calm is perfectly captured, along with a rawness that jumps out from the canvas.


© Thomas Ehretsmann 

Second prize reflects motherhood more subtly. Thomas Ehretsmann’s Double Portrait is an acrylic painting of his wife Caroline walking in a park in France. It is painted in profile, and the stillness of her expression - the strength of her gaze - holds the attention. She was eight months pregnant at the time - the ‘double’ referred to in the title. Third prize is an altogether different prospect, as Antony Williams’ Emma shows his model-turned-friend posing in a more traditional way. Having modelled for Williams for 13 years, their relationship has moved from professional to personal, and the portrait shows a mix of vulnerability and control. Although she is naked, her folded arms conceal part of her body. Her stance is a closed one, and contrasts with the portrait as an inherently open medium.

One of the most shocking moments comes from the BP Travel Award winner Laura Guoke’s trip to the refugee camps of Ritsona in Greece. Her twin portraits - Monica and Rima and Muhammed Ahmed - show a female refugee and her child, and a female volunteer at the camp. The pair were chosen because of their very different backgrounds but very similar ages. Whilst Rima escaped Aleppo to head to the camp, Monica was there on a break from a business degree. The similarity in age is shocking - one would think there was a 15-20 year difference - and it captures how much sheer circumstance and place of birth can affect a life.

Another stand-out comes early on. The strength of the gaze in Anne Ben-Or’s Carmel is incredible. The portrait captures the artist’s daughter, in Ben-Or’s words, “starting her life as a young independent woman. One can see the positive force inside her”. Ben-Or “was always impressed by this quality. It is a challenge, as well as a great joy, to translate what radiates from her in pictorial language.” A challenge that she has certainly met. Carmel’s gaze is difficult to tear your eyes from.


© Anne Ben-Or 

This theme, of the passion of youth, is apparent throughout the exhibition. The simmering, brooding frustration emanating from Anastasia Kurakina’s student friend Francesco; 86, by Janne Kearney, where an anonymous, dissatisfied youth leans against a wall in an urban space; the confrontational Society by Khushna - all these portraits capture a sense of gritty determination, of hard lives leading to strong convictions. The world is a difficult place, but that only makes for a fearless and fearsome determination to succeed.

At the same time, the respect and reverence given to old age is equally apparent. The astonishingly realistic Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa is a detailed testament to the artist’s 80 year old father. A portrait of Antonio López, famous Spanish realist painter and mentor to the artist Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón, shows the sitter on a stool in his shorts. It is a humble pose, and shows the love of the person behind the artist and friend. Granny (96). Time together before she left is a touching oil painting of the grandmother of Jose Antonio Ochoa’s friend. He captures all her years, and imbues the painting with the gentle, radiating calm that age can bring.


© Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba 

The odd angles of Ania, a self-portrait by artist Ania Hobson, is a way of working out her painter’s block. The disjointed, unnatural angles stand out amongst more formal poses. Lucy Stopford’s Dr Tim Morton, a portrait of one of the National Portrait Gallery’s former Registrars, is a rare example of a more abstract painting, as the broad brushstrokes capture the energy of the subject.

The BP Portrait Award seems particularly timely this year. A new wave of appreciation for people is dawning, and portraiture is exactly that - a celebration of people. People’s journey’s, people’s hopes, people’s fears and people’s energies. It’s a chance to look deeply into a stranger’s eyes, and to gain an insight into entirely different lives - to feel a connection with the sitter and with the artist’s relationship with the sitter. A room full of strangers has never felt so welcoming.

The BP Portrait Award runs at the National Portrait Gallery until September 24. Entry is free!
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