The world-renowned BP Portrait Award has returned to the National Portrait Gallery for its 32nd year and the quality of the artwork is higher than ever. The 55 unique portraits – carefully selected from 2373 entries – will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery until September.

The exhibition contains such a variety of different styles of painting that there really is something for everyone to enjoy. The piece that won first prize – Distracted, by Wim Heldens – is a neutral-toned portrait of a young man named Jeroen. Heldens, who is a father figure to Jeroen (now 25 and studying philosophy), says he wanted to depict Jeroen in a simple pose and in natural light. The portrait is undeniably touching and painted with skill, but I can’t really understand why it won first prize. To my mind, there are several other pieces that are more memorable and interesting.

…every tiny vein and millimetre of stubble is perfectly rendered.

Ian Cumberland’s piece Just to Feel Normal is one of these. I think he deserved far higher reward than third prize. Cumberland chose to paint his unnamed friend in a pose which wasn’t replicated in any of the other portraits: close-up with his head slightly tilted back, his expression an almost-smile. The extraordinary detail of the sitter’s skin makes the piece look almost like a photograph, as every tiny vein and millimetre of stubble is perfectly rendered. The composition is also very photographic and more straightforward than many others, which allows the subject to be the main focus rather than the background or frame, for example. Cumberland’s portrait is by far one of the most unforgettable, really drawing you in to look closer.

A rather different take on the portrait, Louis Smith’s Holly is deeply impressive in terms of size, skill, detail and style. Smith chose to paint his model (Holly) in the narrative portrait style, using the background as a sort of theatrical composition through which the sitter’s story is told. He believes that this encourages the sitter to become engaged with the portrait. According to Smith, Holly’s pose is one of “calm strength and resilience” in the face of adversity. The frame chosen by Smith is what really makes this portrait stand out: huge, gold and extremely ornate, it’s difficult to miss. This particular piece stirred up a lot of discussion among the judges due to its controversial nature – they were unable to agree on whether it was innovative or just gaudy. Still, they agreed enough to award it second prize. Highly unusual, I don’t particularly like this piece (and would definitely have awarded second or even first prize to Cumberland over Smith) but I find it made more of an impression than Helden’s portrait.

He manages to capture something in his subjects’ eyes which truly brings them to life…

I find Alan Coulson’s Latoya very intriguing. Coulson depicts her inner calm while bringing the portrait to life with a vivid injection of colour in her clothing and eyelashes. It seems almost as though he is catching his subject in a moment of deep reflection. Though her eyes are shut, we get a real sense of her personality. The portrait’s simple composition and meticulous detail really make Latoya stand out.

Less colourful but no less stunning is Raoul Martinez’s portrait of playwright, activist and historian Howard Zinn (Howard Zinn – A People’s Historian). The piece was completed just before Zinn’s death. The rich detail of Zinn’s face, each fold of skin and shadow, contrasts with the blank space where his clothes should be. This makes Zinn’s face and neck the focus of the piece, framing them simply and drawing all attention to the subject’s striking eyes. Its simplicity and large blank spaces remind me of Martinez’s portrait of Alan Rickman, another stunning piece that was exhibited in last year’s BP Portrait Award. He manages to capture something in his subjects’ eyes which truly brings them to life and makes them instantly recognisable.

The BP Portrait Award obviously showcases the prize-winning pieces, however some of the most interesting portraits are those that haven’t won any awards. Everyone has a favourite and, as I discovered, it’s not necessarily the one the judges have picked out. That’s why the BP Portrait Award is such a fantastic exhibition, appealing to everyone and anyone.

 The BP Portrait Award 2011 is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 September.

Admission is free.


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