I had the chance last weekend to visit the BP Portrait Awards 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery. As always it is an interesting review of the world of portraiture today. There are portraits of all shapes and sizes, some which strike a chord and some which don’t. But what made a very strong impression on me this year was the extent to which the exhibition divided into two schools of portrait painting. One might be called the ‘formal’ or ‘atelier’ school, with the painters having nearly all spent time at traditional Florence, New York or London atelier schools, the other might be called the ‘informal’ school, with painters trained in universities or colleges around the world.
The atelier school pictures, such as Laura in Black by Joshua LaRock can typically be recognised from across the room. They are highly technically proficient, conservatively composed, with a restrained colour palette and a dark background. They are almost by definition formal portraits, even when ‘unfinished’ as in Laura in Black. But in looking at them you cannot help but feel that the artist has been slightly imprisoned by the process and that while there is much to admire in technical proficiency, there is too little to distinguish between them. You feel that they need to be quietly subverted to retain the technical strength whilst making them more contemporary. One artist who has applied his atelier skills to the production of something original is Jamie Coreth with his picture of his father sculpting him. Whilst still a very ‘traditional’ portrait in style, Coreth has producing something with a strong narrative that is demonstrably personal and bears repeated viewing. He justly won the Young Artist Award.
The overall winner of the BP Portrait Award was Clara Drummond with her picture Girl in a Liberty Dress. The contrast with the atelier school entries could not have been more stark. This is a pictures which is infinitely looser in style, informal and understated. Indeed, to my mind it is a little too understated, being small and two-dimensional. It had the feel of a study rather than a finished work. However, Clara Drummond is a serious artist and her style clearly works in the context of this competition. She has been selected for exhibition in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2014. Clara, by the way, learnt her drawing through the Prince’s (now Royal) Drawing School.
As always, there are pictures you see in these shows which you feel should have been awarded. For me, one of the very best pictures was Jean by Jean-Paul Tibbles, illustrated at the top of this post. This picture of his son was remarkably penetrating with eyes which locked your gaze and followed you round the room. It neatly straddles the two approaches I described above and was, for me, the picture of the show.