BP Portrait Award 2019 @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release: ‘The BP Portrait Award is the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world and represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting.’

With a first prize of £35,000, and a total prize fund of £74,000, it attracts entries from all over the world. This year there were 2,538 entries from which the judges selected a short list of forty-four and, back in June, selected a first, second and third prize winner, as well as a BP Young Artist Award and a BP Travel Award.

The competition has been taking place every summer for forty years (thirty under the sponsorship of BP) and is a fixture in the London art calendar. Certainly, I’ve been going every year for a while.

Installation view of the BP Portrait Award 2019 exhibition with a characteristic sprinkling of gallery goers – older, white, and mostly female

Four quick and obvious points:

1. In previous years the short-listed works have been displayed in rooms at the back of the gallery, which feel big and airy. This year they’re all in the small gallery which you enter from the landing (the exhibition is, incidentally, FREE) and this space somehow made it feel pokier and smaller…

2. As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of previous shows, no-one is smiling let alone laughing. Everyone looks stony-faced and serious, which makes for an oddly downbeat experience.

3. Also, as I’ve pointed out before, almost all the subjects are friends of, partners of, daughters or sons or fathers or mothers of, the artist — which, after a while, gives anyone reading all the wall labels a slightly claustrophobic sense of being in a small, incestuous world of like-minded liberals and bien-pensant artists, their friends and families. A small and very passive, inactive world. A world where people sit still with unchanging expressions…

Conservative and traditional

4. And this brings me to the fourth, and most directly art-related point, which is… how very very conservative almost all the art on display is. Of the forty-four images only about three departed in any way from conventional figurative oil painting. There was one collage, a sort of photographic negative… um. In fact a list of the ‘modernist’ works would amount to:

A few had a cartoon-like simple-mindedness, which I sort of liked (Davetta by Natalie Voelker, Passion Fruit by Luis Ruocco) and most of the rest were good, sometimes very good – but almost all straight-down-the line, easy and accessible figurative oil paintings.

Here is a portrait of Ezra Pound done by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1917, just over one hundred years ago.

Drawing of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1917)

It was a quick sketch done from life and represents everything I love about the first heroic era of Modernism about the time of the Great War, which is its tremendous energy and confidence. What a blaze of personality is captured in a handful of brushstrokes! I don’t know why this image popped into my head as I walked around the BP gallery but, once it had, I couldn’t help feeling that this one drawing contains more energy and life than all forty-four entries in this display put together.

Here is an online gallery of the 44 paintings in the exhibition.

A personal selection

You can surf the gallery and select whichever works light your candle or pull your daisy. My own opinion changed as I strolled between them, liking now this now that work, in a lazy summer Saturday kind of way, but three I grew to particularly like are:

Jenne by Manu Kaur Saluja

Jenne by Manu Kaur Saluja © Manu Kaur Saluja

Hyper-realistic it may be but, looking at it for a while, I became more and more beguiled by the use of turquoise – always a favourite colour of mine – in the tiles behind the sitter, and in her face, under her left eye, on her neck. The more I looked, the more I liked the very complicated play of colour Saluja uses to create what many people mistake for ‘white’ skin, which is, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Rumination by Frances Bell

Rumination by Frances Bell © Frances Bell

Fantastically traditional in style, this reminded me of the exhibition of Russian art from the end of the 19th century which the NPG held three years ago. It could be a young Tolstoy with his shirt off after a hard day pretending to be a peasant. Instead it is Edd, a friend of the artist’s, admirably skinny and bearded and with an impressive arm tattoo.

Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide

Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide © Miguel Angel Oyarbide

Like all Western nations, we have an ageing population (I am aging as I write this, are you aging as you read it?) – a fact which is rarely reflected in art or the intersection of art and music and advertising and fashion, all of which fetishise youth.

I grew up in a village which was full of old people, in the village shop where they came to congregate and chat each day, itself opposite a Victorian priory which had been converted into an old people’s home and us kids were regularly dragged off to visit some of the bed-ridden old ladies our mum had got to know.

I have seen so many Hollywood movies and adverts and TV shows where sexy young things get their kit off, allowing the camera to linger on their smooth burnished curves or muscular torsos. It is, quite simply, a relief from the oppressive world of photoshopped youth, to come to this painting and admire an extremely skilful depiction of age. Look at the light on the side of her face, and the liver spots on her forehead, and the dense wrinkling of her hand (she still uses nail polish). The narrow shoulders and the amazing way the artist has captured the fabric of the subject’s cardigan.

Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of me to claim to admire dashing modernist works and yet to end up choosing three very conventional pieces as my favourites? No. My point is precisely that there is hardly anything ‘modern’ available in this selection, and that what there is struck me as echoes of modernist approaches which were done much better, generations ago. You don’t order steak at a vegan restaurant. I chose what I liked from what was on offer.

Which ones do you like?


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release, Cindy Sherman is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. This is a massive retrospective of Sherman’s entire career, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It includes over 190 works from international public and private collections, some of them never seen in public before, some of them reunited after decades apart.

What is Sherman famous for? For dressing up as fictional characters and types, and taking photos of herself.

She stumbled across the idea as an art student in the mid-1970s and – in an impressive example of an artist hitting a style, establishing a brand, and then sticking to it through thick and thin – she has followed the same practice for the past 45 years.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chronological order

The exhibition is arranged in a straightforward chronological order allowing you to see how Sherman’s art has evolved and developed from the mid-1970s to today. It opens with rarely exhibited photographs and films created while she was still an art student at the State University College at Buffalo from 1972 to 1976.

One early set, from 1976, is titled Unhappy Hooker where Sherman depicts herself as a prostitute waiting for a client.

In Murder Mystery (also 1976) she made a series of black-and-white photos of herself, in each one dressed up in the outfit of a character from a fictional murder mystery play (which she herself wrote) – the butler, the waitress, the rich old lady, the detective etc. Note the stereotyping of the characters.

In November 1976, shortly after she graduated from art school, Sherman created a series titled Cover Girl, in which she takes the covers of five fashion or ‘women’s’ magazines (CosmopolitanVogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle), and transposes her own face (generally pulling a yucky, silly expression) onto the face of the glamour model on the cover. Each work accomplishes the transformation from sensible to satirical in three images, and the five sets of three images are displayed here together for the first time since that heady summer of 76!

In Line-Up (1977) made just after she graduated and just before she moved to New York City, there are thirty-five black and white photos, in each of which Sherman appears, on her own, dressed in costume with make-up, playing thirty-five different characters.

So right from the beginning we can see the patterns emerging in Sherman’s work which will hold true for the rest of her career:

  1. She works in projects or series, all addressing a particular theme or taking a similar approach
  2. All the photos are of herself. There is never anyone else in the photos. But she is always ‘in character’, playing a role.
  3. None of her photos has ever had a title. They are all called Untitled and then given a number. Thus the final photo in the exhibition is named Untitled #549. (They may have brackets added after the number indicating the particular series the image belongs to.) One of the intentions of this is to ‘universalize the particular’, and leave the images open to the widest possible range of interpretations by the viewer.

Untitled Film Stills

Her breakthrough piece was Untitled Film Stills. Building on the previous series but going one big aesthetic step further, Untitled Film Stills is a series of 70 black-and-white photos which Sherman started creating soon after she arrived in New York City in 1977, and which, when they were exhibited, made her reputation. They are also – to give away the plot – in my opinion, by far and away the best thing in the exhibition.

They’re fairly small, portrait-shaped prints, about 18 inches high by a foot wide. In each of them Sherman dresses and poses as a completely different character. So that’s 70 female characters going about their business in the big bad city. Each of the figures is caught in different setting, in apartments, out on the street, in a suburban garden, several appear to be set in a swimming pool.

If there’s a consistent ‘look’ to the photos it derives from 1950s and 60s Hollywood – from film noir, B-movies and, maybe, from European art-house films. Some could be papparazzi shots of unknown celebs. The most obvious vibe they emit is a sense of suppressed anxiety or, in some of the long lens photos of blurred figures, a sense of mystery. Though all that makes them sounds too dark and indoors-y. Many of the best ones are outdoors or in full sunlight.

Untitled Film Still #7 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

A number of things make them great. As compositions, they are all top quality, imaginatively posed, full of detail and interest.

But the really obvious thing is how dramatic they are. They are like stills from a wider drama. You feel the presence of other people just out of the shot, who are about to walk in and say or do something, or else have just left the frame after saying something explosive. They suggest all kinds of possible backstories – who where what why how? – and prompt an incredibly rich response in the viewer, making you imagine all kinds of films and stories and plots of which these are decisive moments and fragments. Each one is like a short story in itself.

The Untitled Film Stills are given a room to themselves early on in the show and – in my humble opinion – it is by far the best room, the one I came back to at the end, once I’d reviewed the entire exhibition, and sat on the bench conveniently provided for visitors, and let my eye wander over the images and my mind – not exactly work out a complete story for each image – but respond to the mood and vibe and possibilities contained in each one.

This idea, of a kind of photo pregnant with meaning, struck me as a wonderful achievement. And doing them as a set hugely contributes to the cumulative effect, creating the sense of an entire world set in this one but, because of the demonstrably false and made-up actor Cindy Sherman featuring centre stage in each photo, both this world and vividly artificial, fake and created.

Bigger

From this point onwards, the remaining eight or so rooms show three things happening to Sherman’s work over the succeeding decades:

  1. the photos go from black and white to colour
  2. they get bigger and bigger until, soon they are four or five foor tall, in the work from the 1990s they are horribly, oppressively huge and, in the final room, have become photo-murals covering entire walls
  3. and, as a result, I felt that – as the photos became more technically adroit in colour and saturation, and evermore grandiose in size – the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination, gets progressively more and more squeezed out of the photos and, eventually, instead of leaning forward and entering her imaginative world, I felt I was cowering backwards and being harangued

Later series

Each of the remaining rooms hangs samples from Sherman’s major series, namely:

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

The first series she made in colour, the Rear Screen Projections are also noticeably larger than the Film Stills, about five times bigger. The camera is closer up to her face, which is more subtly made-up to create different characters. The commentary says this greater close-up creates more psychological depth, but I felt there was more imaginative depth in the Untitled Film Stills.

Centrefolds (1981)

In the new larger size, and in the new full colour, Centrefolds are cast in a wide, landscape format which is deliberately reminiscent of the centrefolds of men’s magazines i.e. soft porn. But instead of scantily-clad women arranged to titillate ‘the male gaze’, Sherman’s personas look ill at ease and troubled, women in trouble or some kind of extreme situation. Though referencing magazine culture, some of the images very clearly derive from the aesthetic of film posters or the kind of dramatic stills used to promote movies.

Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman (1981) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Pink Robes (1982)

A series of big colour photos in which Sherman dresses as an artist’s or photographer’s model, who wraps herself in a pink robe between shots. So the idea is these are off-the-cuff casual moments in a photographer’s studio, with Sherman posing as the bored model.

For the first time in these photos Sherman stares directly at the camera, which led some critics to get over-excited about how we were ‘seeing the real Cindy Sherman for the first time’! This strikes me as taking a strikingly naive view of what constitutes ‘reality’.

Fashion (1983)

In 1983 Sherman was commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce advertising images to promote clothes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Sherman responded with photos of herself – in different personas – wearing the clothes alright, but in characters which are obviously abject and neurotic. This was intended as a satirical critique of the shallow superficiality of the fashion world.

The trouble is you cannot satirise fashion. There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which the inhabitants of the fashion world are not completely aware of, but still love. Thus the client loved the photos, so new, so original daaahling.

Vogue Paris (1984)

Sherman received another fashion commission from a French fashion house to provide photos for a shoot for Vogue Paris. She created images of herself made-up to be the models, again wearing the designer clothes alright, but again shooting them in a subversive style, making her look deliberately gawky, clumsy and unhappy. The client loved them. And a glance at her Wikipedia article shows that she has had a long and extensive engagement with the world of fashion, receiving numerous further commissions, designing jewellery and other accessories etc. ‘There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which…’

Fairy Tales (1985)

In this series Sherman dresses up as ‘types’ from fairy tales, in enormous colour photos, heavily made-up to create some really aggressive, scary images. The lighting is (inevitably) more dark and in most of these shots, the settings looking like the forests and gravelly soil of the Germanic Grimm stories – a visual departure for Sherman most of whose photos – you realise – have been set in city streets or urban interiors. In some of them the Sherman personas looking like they’re undergoing real physical ordeals.

Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman (1985) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

History Portraits (1988-90)

the fairy tale series represents a conscious departure from the urban setting of most of her photos hitherto,

At the end of the 1980s Sherman took a conscious break from dissecting / analysing / subverting contemporary culture and immersed herself in the world of Old Master paintings, including a trip to Rome to see the real thing.

The result was a series of thirty elaborately staged, huge, richly coloured photos in which Sherman appears in a range of costumes and uses prosthetic noses, breasts and other accessories to drastically change her appearance and parody the appearance of male and female royalty and aristocrats, even a madonna and child.

Untitled Film Still #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I didn’t like these at all. I thought they were a bad joke in poor taste. I thought they showed a complete lack of empathy with the Middle Ages, Renaissance or Old Master painting. You can’t really dress them up as a feminist ‘reclamation’ of the images as – unusually – half the images are of Sherman dressing up as late medieval men.

Sex Pictures (1992)

In a room by themselves – with a warning that it contains ‘adult content’ – is a set of huge, garishly coloured and disturbing photos of what look like plastic mannequins, cut up and reassembled to emphasise their (generally female) genitals, which – presumably – were specially created for these photos. The general aim is to produce disturbingly transgressive rewrites of porn tropes, and the handful of massive images here certainly are disgusting, showing cobbled-together bits and pieces of fake plastic human bodies, featuring not only vulvas but anuses, penises made of plastic, in one image a string of sausage-like turds proceeding from what looks like a vulva.

As far as I can see, these are the only series in which she does not appear. A very great deal has been written about these pictures, by critics who, apparently, do not understand what pornography is or who it is for. By which I mean they imagine that disassembling the human body into surreal conglomerates of chopped up pieces will act as a once and for all, decisive ‘subversion’ and undermining of the male gaze and pornographic imagery.

How pitifully, it seems to me, they underestimate the baseness of human nature, and woefully underestimate the ubiquitous power of pornography. A few repellent art photos change nothing, nothing at all.

Office Killer (1997)

In the later 1990s Sherman got involved in making films, directing an art movie titled Office Killer released in 1997. One critic called it ‘sadly inept’, others ‘crude’ and ‘laugh-free’. Having produced and directed TV myself, I know there is a world of difference between taking one inspired photo and creating a plausible and effective series of moving shots.

Clowns (2003-4)

Sherman dresses up as a variety of clown types. Obviously all looking miserable and forlorn. The sad reality behind the clown strikes me as being one of the more exhausted, clichéd tropes of all time.

Society Portraits (2008)

A series satirising rich women in high society. The ageing female characters created in these huge colour photos are all using make-up and cosmetics to try and mask the ageing process and, failing in that, emphasise their wealth via fashionable dresses, expensive accessories and to-die-for houses.

Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Presumably these are meaningful if you in any way read about, or are aware of, rich American society ladies – from magazines and high society and gossip columns in newspapers, or from the publicity surrounding fashion houses, or at the openings of new operas or plays or art exhibitions at the Met or New York’s fashionable art galleries. Not engaging with any of this content or people, I saw them less as satire than fictionalised portraits of a social type I’ve been aware of for decades – the swank American millionaire wife – who has been lampooned and satirised for centuries, going back to the so-called Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and before.

Balenciaga (2008)

Balenciaga is a luxury fashion house, originally from Spain. Echoing her repeated engagement with the world of fashion, and mixing it with the ageing heroines of Society Portraits, Sherman created a series of six enormous, colour digital photos of herself playing the character of an ageing fashion doyenne, a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Like I say, this is maybe hilarious or relevant if you give a damn about the world of high fashion or rich-bitch society women – but I don’t.

Untitled #462 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chanel (2012)

Sherman was then commissioned by the perfumier Chanel to record some of their dresses and outfits. Sherman chose to create her biggest works to date, a set of absolutely enormous, wall-sized photos depicting more-than-life-sized women standing alone in enormous landscapes. On closer inspection these landscapes appear to have been either painted in, or digitally altered to have a painterly feel. The landscapes were from both Iceland and the isle of Capri, and I found them, artistically, the most interesting part of the compositions.

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

Untitled #574 by Cindy Sherman (2016) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For completists

If you are a Sherman completist then I can imagine you will be thrilled by the digital version on display here of A Cindy Book, a private album of family photographs that Sherman began compiling when she was eight or nine-years-old, which has never been seen before, and which reveals an early fascination with her own changing appearance.

Similarly, one whole room (in fact it’s the ‘transition’ space between the galleries at the front and the galleries at the back of the building) has been given over to a recreation of Sherman’s studio in New York, with wall-sized photos of her bookshelves, posters and collections of photos torn from glamour magazines and pinned to the wall, and shelves and cupboards full of masks and make-up and prosthetic attachments – all designed to provide ‘an unprecedented insight into the artist’s working processes.’

During the recent big exhibition at the NPG of photos by Martin Parr (which I found much more interesting and fun than Sherman) this space was converted into a working model of a transport caff which actually sold hot tea and cake. It would be funny if, for every exhibition they hold in these galleries, the National Portrait Gallery created a themed eaterie. A Giacometti pizzeria would have been good – imagine how thin the crusts would have been! Or a Cézanne café, with French peasants smoking pipes and playing cards, and a view of Mont Saint Victoire in the distance…

Thoughts

First of all, it is a striking achievement to have made a career out of what is basically one idea.

This is because Sherman has been able to come up with a succession of subjects and topics to each of which she can apply her distinctive, dressing-up approach and each of which are susceptible to rich and stimulating critical interpretation.

Then there’s the quality of the photographs themselves. The wall labels don’t go into as much detail about this as I’d like, but you get the impression that, as digital photography has evolved over the past forty years, Sherman has kept well abreast of all the developments and been able to incorporate each new wave of technology into her trademark concept. The sheer size of prints which modern digital photography enables, with pinpoint focus at every part of the image, becoming the most obvious one, as the exhibition progresses.

To keep mining the same vein and consistently coming up with apparently new and innovative variations on more or less the same theme deserves respect, especially in the shark pool which is the New York art scene.

However, at about this point questions of personal taste begin to intrude. All of the series certainly contained at least several highly impactful and striking photographs. And, unlike me, readers of this post may well like the fairy tale or Old Master or Flapper photos more than the earlier ones. Different people will have different responses.

All I can say is that, as the exhibition advanced through the decades and series, I was less and less engaged and attracted, and slowly became repelled by the sheer size and garish colouring of some of the photos. Way before the porn room I was actively shrinking from these big, shouty images, and I had certainly had enough by the end, and was relieved when I got to the final room with its overpowering wall-sized murals of vague landscapes with a modern woman plonked in front of them. Phew. Duty done, I could stroll back to the early room and enjoy again the marvelous Untitled Film Stills.

As well as feeling more and more repelled by the images, I also quickly disliked the ideas and subjects. Satirising the world of New York fashion, while making a lot of money from working within the world of New York fashion, just struck me as hypocritical and typically… American. If you are American, an American artist or photographer or film-maker, it appears to be very difficult to escape from the vast money-making machine which is American culture.

When it came to the society photos, taking the mickey out of vain, rich, wrinkly old American millionairesses is something I grew up watching the great Alan Whicker do on his TV documentaries back in the 1970s. It just seemed such a very…. old idea.

And lampooning Old Master paintings seemed to me a rather pointless thing to do, particularly when it’s done in such a grim and humourless way. Strapping on a fake plastic boob and spending hours dressing up to look like a madonna and child seemed a peculiarly futile exercise. If you’re going to mock them at least be funny, in the manner of Monty Python or the Horrible Histories. Just pointing out that the real-life kings and queens of that time were probably not as smooth-skinned and luminously handsome as their portraitists depicted them strikes me as being, well, not the most original or interesting idea.

The notes to the porn room made the point for me that her photos heavily referenced the disturbing sexualised mannequins the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer was making back in the 1930s. Well, quite.

The curators suggest that Sherman’s work has never been more relevant than here and now, in the age of the selfie and the internet and Instagram and social media – but I disagree.

Watching my teenage kids and their friends has shown me that all my ideas about images and how they should and shouldn’t be used, assessed and consumed, belong in the Stone Age. The speed and sophistication of modern teenagers’ attitudes to movies, TV shows, stills, photos, ads and selfies is light years ahead of the kind of mainstream, dad culture represented by this exhibition.

For this exhibition – like most of the exhibitions I go to – was mostly populated by mums and dads, mostly filled, as usual, with grey-haired, older, white people, the majority of them women. No doubt some of the visitors have done courses in Critical Theory and Feminist Studies and are conversant with the numberless theories of gender and identity and performance which have been generated over the past fifty years, all of which can be liberally applied to Sherman’s work.

But a) Cindy Sherman’s basic idea – dressing up as ‘characters’ contemporary or historical or from fairy tales, and photographing herself – seems so old-fashioned, so pre-digital, as to be sweet and naive.

And b) I didn’t really believe anything I read in the wall labels about gender and identity and subverting this or that stereotype. In most of the photos she looks like a woman. When she was a young woman, she looks like a young woman, sometimes dressed and posed as a noticeably attractive young woman, pink towel about to fall off her lissom body as in a Kenny Everett sketch.

As she’s grown older, Sherman’s subjects have changed and, for example, the series of photos depicting fictional American women using cosmetics to appear younger than they are… well… that’s actually what millions of ageing American women do, isn’t it? I didn’t see that it was subverting any stereotypes. On the contrary, I thought almost all of her images reinforced the stereotypes so actively produced and disseminated by the mainstream American bubblegum culture which she so constantly refers to (all those compositions which look like scenes from movies) or which she has herself, personally, contributed to (all those fashion shoots).

For me the Untitled Film Stills series was the best series. It was the most modest in aim and so, somehow, the most effective. It had the most mystery and each one of the shots created an imaginative space for the viewer to inhabit and populate as they wished.

You may well disagree and find her later work funny or disturbing or inspiring or bitingly satirical, and I can see how different people – old and young, gay and straight, men or women – might get very different things from her work.

The one thing which is unquestionably true is that this is as definitive and complete an overview of a figure many critics refer to as ‘one of the most important and influential artists of our time’ (the Observer) as we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

So if you want to find out for yourself whether you like some, all, or none of Cindy Sherman’s work, you should definitely go along and check it out for yourself.

Video

This short video by Divento.com gives a good feel for the variety and layout of the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beach life one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery has turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French joint with expresso machine, but a down at heel, fly-blown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking Brandenburg cakes.

You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or just sit and chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus you’ll find a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thailand, the Soviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely:

  • gender (meaning all women are oppressed)
  • diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed)
  • same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed)
  • imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed)
  • and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed)

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire oeuvre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Seen and Heard: Victorian Children in the Frame @ Guildhall Art Gallery

This is an exhibition of artworks on a subject which is so straightforward, so hidden in plain sight, that it is easily overlooked – children.

To be precise, children in Victorian art.

Victorian Children in the Frame

Guildhall Art Gallery has brought together nearly fifty paintings from the long nineteenth century – approximately 1810 to 1910 – which demonstrate some of the ways in which children were depicted by artists during this long period of tumultuous social change.

The exhibition space consists of two large rooms divided into ‘alcoves’ or sections, each devoted to a different aspect of the painted imagery of children 1810-1910. At the start there is a timeline showing the major legal and educational reforms which affected children through the nineteenth century.

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Introduction

Before the 19th century children were depicted in art works as miniature adults. By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837 children were being depicted more realistically, shown playing with toys or pets. Childhood began to be seen as a distinct and particularly valuable period of life, and children – middle and upper-class children, anyway – as needing coddling and protecting.

It should be mentioned early on that the majority of the 46 or so paintings on display are of a quite mind-boggling soppy sentimentality. The commentary doesn’t mention it but the Cult of Sentiment which had arisen in aristocratic circles in the late 18th century carried on and came to full bloom in some extraordinarily sickly paintings during the 19th century. Chocolate box doesn’t begin to describe them. They may be too sickly sweet for many modern tastes.

That said the exhibition includes a large number of artists, most of whom will be unknown and, since every picture has a useful and informative label, reading them all gives you a good sense of the range and diversity (or lack of it) during the period.

And it’s really interesting to see what inhabitants of distant historical periods liked, commissioned and paid for. Sharpens your sense of the enormous cultural changes which took place during this period, and which separate us from that distant time.

This first section includes:

  • John Strange and Sarah Ann Williams (1830) by John R. Wildman
  • The Artist’s son (1820) by Martin Archer Shee
  • Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn
Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn

Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn © the Royal Academy

Children in poverty

There is a slight disconnect in the exhibition between its wall labels and the actual content. The labels emphasise that throughout the period tens of thousands of children suffered from malnutrition, illness, abuse and overwork. And right at the start of the show there is a big display panel listing the major legislation passed during the 19th century with the twin aims of:

  1. protecting protect children from exploitation and
  2. educating them

This explains that free state education for the under-10s wasn’t available until 1870, while it was only in 1874 that children under the age of ten were forbidden from working in factories. These and other basic historical facts make for startling reading.

However, when you turn from the information texts to the pictures you discover that the exhibition itself has almost no paintings of working children, apart from a handful showing romanticised road sweeps and shoe polishers.

There is no depiction whatsoever of children working in coalmines or in any of the hundreds of thousands of factories which sprang up across the land, in any trades or of the thousands of under-age girls who worked as prostitutes.

There’s no depiction of the kind of workhouse described in Oliver Twist or the bullying junior schools shown in Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield.

Instead this section contains some more chocolate-boxy images:

  • Cottage children (1804) by William Owen
  • The Pet Lamb (1813) by William Collins
  • Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington © Tate

Compare this painting by Thomas Kennington with the Raeburn above. It is interesting to observe the difference in technique between the early and later part of the century (Raeburn 1814, Kennington 1885), the way a Thomas Lawrence-type softness has given way to a style more roughly painted and with more realistic details (the ragged trousers, the hole in the floor).

But it’s still desperately sentimental, though, isn’t it? Still the same rosy red cheeks and catchlights in the eyes.

Children and animals

The commentary suggests that the British public was sentimental about animals long before it cared about poor children, pointing out that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in England in 1824, whereas the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t founded till 1884.

The commentary claims that children and animals became increasingly associated as the sentimental Victorian era progressed, but I personally wasn’t convinced of that. One of my all time favourite paintings is Gainsborough’s depiction of his two daughters with a cat, on show at the National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition of Gainsborough portraits – and this dates from 1760.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the association of sweet little children and sweet little animals became more mass produced, a shameless catering to the sentimentalism of the new Victorian mass public. In this show it is exemplified in Millais’s couple of paintings, My First Sermon and My Second Sermon, showing the sweetest of innocent little Victorian girls sitting in her smart Sunday best. This was a madly successful painting which was widely distributed in the form of prints and reproductions.

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Also in this section are:

  • The First Leap (1829) by Sir Edwin Landseer
  • Portrait of a Young Girl (1891) by William Powell Frith
  • The Music Lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton
  • Sun and Moonflowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie
  • Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere
Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere

Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere © Tate

Children at play

What more nostalgic and anodyne image could you conceive than the innocent children of unspoilt crofters fishing by a clear crystal stream or playing harmless games in a rural garden, as depicted here.

But as the century progressed the notion of ‘play’ became commercialised and integrated into a capitalist economy. Playrooms were built in posh houses, playgrounds were built in new housing developments, the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 gave parents special days to spend with their children.

A further development was the invention of seaside resorts, in the first half of the century only for the rich but leading to the development of increasingly popular resorts like Blackpool, Scarborough and Brighton. The paintings in this section capture all phases of this development but with the emphasis mostly on some really cheesy scenes of innocent rural play.

  • The Nutting Party (1831) by William Collins
  • Borrowdale, Cumbria (1821) by William Collins
  • the Kitten Deceived (1816) by William Collins
  • Try This Pair (1864) by Frederick Daniel Hardy
  • Gran’s Treasures (1866) by George Bernard O’Neill
  • The Playground (1852) by Thomas Webster
  • The Swing (1865) by Myles Birket Foster
  • The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Foster was a skilled watercolourist who painted scenery around his Surrey home of Witley. Looks wonderfully idyllic, doesn’t it, but not much to do with the themes of the commercialisation of holidays and recreation time mentioned in the wall labels.

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Children of city, country and coast

The commentary points out the population explosion which characterised the 19th century, and that most of it took place in new towns and cities. This big increase in population gave rise to hair-raising infant mortality statistics as newborns and toddlers fell prey to the diseases of humans crushed together in cramped, insanitary conditions – typhoid, cholera and the like.

However – counter-intuitively – instead of showing paintings of this squalor and disease, the commentary uses these facts to explain a section depicting children at the seaside, including:

  • Children at the Seaside (1910) by Frank Gascoigne Heath
  • John, Everard and Cecil Baring (1872) by James Sant
  • 3rd Lord Evelstoke as a Boy (1871) by E. Tayleur
  • The Bonxie, Shetland (1873) by James Clarke Hook
  • Word fromt he Missing (1877) by James Clarke Hook
  • Shrimp Boys at Cromer (1815) by William Collins
  • Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Georgie and Richard Fouracre (1889) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Two Children on Deck (1894) Henry Scott Tuke

This latter trio of works makes Tuke, a leading member of the Newlyn School, with his strongly homoerotic portrayals of teenage boys, possibly the most represented artist here.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite was one of the handful of paintings here which really stood out as serious masterpieces which hold their own today. But then it is debatable whether it is about childhood at all. The naked boys are no longer toddlers but on the verge of manhood and that, surely, is part of its appeal.

Pondering the difference between childhood and adolescence made me realise that the exhibition doesn’t actually give a working definition of ‘childhood’ which is, in fact, a problematic category. There is a vast difference between 6 and 16.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke © City of London Corporation

I was really struck by this work, An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne, an artist who studied in France in the 1870s and 1880s and brought the plein air approach back to Britain. 

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Really looking at this painting I realised that what it has in common with the Tuke painting is that both have a matt finish, very unlike the shiny and slickly finished super-gloss finish of a Millais or Riviere.

This alone helps to account for the mournful atmosphere of the painting, although it is obviously also due the artfully sombre palettes of browns and greys. In its own way it may be Victorian chocolate box, but I felt it had more soul than most of the other paintings on display.

One-offs

Off to one side, not part of any particular topic, are a couple of monster large paintings including the beautiful landscape titled The Thames From Richmond Hill, London (1905) by Ernest Albert Waterlow. This appeared to be in the exhibition chiefly here because it has been subjected to recent restoration, which is thoroughly explained by a lengthy wall label.

Nearby was an altogether darker and morbid painting, The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue.

 The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue

The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue © Tate

La Thangue was, apparently, famous for the realism of his late-Victorian rustic scenes, mostly of workaday life. This one has an unusual symbolism about it. It’s not easy to see in this reproduction, and was hard to see in the lowered light of the gallery, but at the end of the path, on the right, is a man with a scythe, and the assumption is that the little girl in the chair has just died.

The emphasis on death and the whiteness of the girl’s dress and pillow link it with a number of European Symbolist painters of the time.

Children at school

In 1851 fewer than 50% of children in Britain attended school. In fact the provision of education was incredibly haphazard until the end of the century. Until then there was no system, instead each region had highly localised and overlapping education facilities which might include factory schools (which provided two hours a day education but only after the end of the eight-hour working day), Dame Schools run by spinster women, Ragged schools for the very poorest which taught survival-level writing and reading, private day schools with low fees and notoriously low standards, and a wide range of schools run by local charities, by the Church of England, the Quakers and so on.

Only the middle and upper classes bothered to educate their children beyond the age of 11 and were able to afford the fees for governesses or private tutors, grammar schools, preparatory and public schools. In Victorian society, the well educated were, then, in a tiny majority.

Only with the Education Act of 1870 were local authorities finally put under the obligation to provide free education for every child under 10. Only in 1880 was attendance at school between the ages of five and 13 made compulsory, and it was not until 1891 that education was provided free for all.

Fascinating stuff but, once again, the paintings which ‘illustrate’ these facts are mawkishly twee and sentimental.

  • A Dame’s School (1845) by Daniel Webster
  • Alone (1902) by Theophile Duverger
  • Two Children at Drawing Lessons (1850s) by Daniel Pasmore
  • The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster
  • The Frown (1841) by Thomas Webster

In the first of this pair of paintings the children are happily smiling and pleasing their teacher. The second shows the same row of little tinkers in various stages of frowning and looking unhappy. Aaaah. Sweet.

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

Children at work

Though the birth rate declined during the 19th century as a result of improvements in medicine and education, nonetheless at one point about a third of the population was under the age of 15.

Victorian England was the first developing country. In the early part of the Industrial Revolution children as young as five were sent to work in city streets, country fields, docks, factories and mines. Legislation slowly raised the age at which children could be put to work and limited their working hours, but it’s still a shock to learn how slowly this came about. In 1842 the Mines Act banned the use of boys under the age of ten down coalmines. So 11-year-olds could go, then. It wasn’t until 1878 that children under the age of 10 were forbidden to work in factories.

But regardless of legislation, city street were full of street Arabs, homeless waifs and strays scraping a living. Henry Mayhew’s astonishing multi-volumed enquiry into the lives and work and economics of street labour, London Labour and the London Poor, revealed to middle-class Victorians an astonishing proliferation of street employment and the precise demarcations and hierarchies among, for example, coster-mongers (who sold fresh fruit), mud larks (who searched for valuable scraps in the Thames mud) match girls (who sold match boxes at pitiful rates), and crossing sweepers, who swept the mud and horse poo out of the way of gentleman and ladies who wished to cross the road, for a penny a go.

The paintings on display here completely fail to capture the real misery of poverty and homelessness. Instead the painters are generally hypnotised by the sentimental notion of solitary or abandoned children, and the paintings are vehicles for tear-jerking sentiment. They may be well-intentioned but all-too-often have all the depth of a Christmas card.

  • The Crossing Sweeper (1858) by William Powell Frith
  • Shaftesbury, Lost and Found (1862) by William MacDuff
  • The General Post Office, one minute to six (1860) by George Elgar Hicks
  • A Crossing Sweeper and a Flower Girl (1884) by Augustus E. Mulready
  • Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready
Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready

Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready © Guildhall Art Gallery

Drawings and prints

Off to one side of the main two exhibition rooms is a space obviously set aside for children and school visits, with tiny tables and chair set with paper and crayons and colouring pens.

But what struck me about this space was that it didn’t have any paintings in, it had prints. And the interesting thing about the prints is that they were vastly more realistic than any of the paintings in the main exhibition. Maybe realistic isn’t exactly the word, since since several of them were the cartoon-style illustrations of George Cruickshank, who illustrated Charles Dickens’s early novels.

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

What I mean is that, although quite a few of the wall labels in the main exhibition described at length the awful conditions for children in the cramped, crowded, filthy squalid new cities thrown up by the Industrial Revolution, none of the paintings really show this, none of them show children working in factories, down the mines, up chimneys etc.

Presumably this is because Art, Fine Art, the Fine Art of Painting, was required by Victorian critics and theorists to show morally and spiritually and religiously uplifting scenes. Hence the glut of happy children in idyllic rural scenes and, even when a painting does show street sweepers, it’s under a melancholy moon on the empty Blackfriars bridge with a view of the romantic Thames in the background i.e. sweetened and sentimentalised.

So it was left to the illustrators and lithographers and print-makers, the cartoonists and illustrators, of Dickens and numerous other mid-Victorian novelists, to actually show what conditions were like in the crowded streets, in bare attics and crowded workhouses and schools which permanently bordered on bedlam, as in the Cruikshank illustration above.

Conclusion

In other words, it was only when I’d finished going round the exhibition a couple of times, and examined the prints in the children’s activity room a few times, that it dawned on me that paintings might not be a very good medium in which to explore the social history of children during the Victorian era.

In fact, society and critics’ and artists’ views about a) what childhood ought to be and b) what a good painting ought to be, actively prevented painting from being an accurate record of the times.

It is a good record of the (to us, largely false and sentimental) taste of the Victorians. But as to what conditions were actually like for the working poor, it may well be that the illustrators tell us more than any painter ever could.

Meditations in Monmouth Street (1839) by George Cruikshank

Meditations in Monmouth Street, 1839, by George Cruikshank

For me these prints linked directly to the acute depictions of London’s street children made by the woman artist Edith Farmiloe nearly sixty years later, and as recently featured in a fascinating exhibition at the Heath Robinson Museum. Prints and illustrations – that’s where the social historian should be looking, rather than at sickly sweet paintings.

A Make believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

A Make-Believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe (1902)


Related links

Other guildhall reviews

Elizabethan Treasures @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition transports us back into the Elizabethan Age, the age of Shakespeare and Spenser, of pointy beards and intricate ruffs, to the soundtrack of exquisite lute music.

Lute music was one of the art forms Elizabethan England was recognised for across the Continent, its chief exponent, John Dowland, being poached by the king of Denmark to entertain his court in 1598.

The other art form which flourished in Elizabethan England was the very distinctive one of portrait miniatures, brought to a peak of perfection by two specialists, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French-born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

This exhibition – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver – brings together some 85 masterpieces by both men, making it the first major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures to be held in the UK for over 35 years. And what a delight it is!

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

These miniature portraits were termed ‘limnings’ at the time, the intricate detailing of their style deriving, ultimately, from medieval manuscript illumination, but the shape and format clearly owing something to the artwork for coins and medals.

Miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a way of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases or worn around the neck, could be pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Variety

Having studied the literature of the Elizabethan period, and being a fan of lute music, I thought I knew what to expect – 60 or 70 exquisitely painted miniature portraits – but the most surprising thing about the exhibition is the variety of works it includes (miniatures, oil paintings, sketches, coins, manuscripts) and the presentation and context surrounding the portraits, which make it feel much more like an immersion in the broader culture and history of the time.

How to limn

For example, early on in the exhibition there is a display case showing the dozen or more implements which were required to create and paint miniatures, including a mortar and pestle to grind the colour, sea shells to mix the pigment with water or gum, the vellum surfaces the miniatures were painted onto, which were themselves worked flat using a paintbrush-style stick with a smooth tooth (!) at the end to create a supersmooth and even surface.

Above the case is a video showing every stage in the preparation and painting. Very informative.

Manuscript illumination

I was fascinated to be told that the tradition of these miniatures stems directly from manuscript illumination, and from the very finely drawn illustrations often found in later medieval manuscripts. To demonstrate how close the link was the exhibition includes a surviving manuscript, the charter marking the establishment of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1583, illustrated by Nicholas Hilliard himself.

Queen Elizabeth

You expect the patrons of these fine artists to have been the richest people in the land, the Queen and her courtiers and there is, indeed, a section devoted to the images of Queen Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard and Oliver. Hilliard, the older man by 18 years, established a monopoly of producing her portraits in miniature. He went on to design seals and illuminated legal documents and medals for the Crown, and became a salaried royal employee in 1599.

To be honest I found the miniatures of Elizabeth on display here less striking than the many full-length portraits of her which exist (and can be seen upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery, for example the stunning ‘Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger). But I was struck by one very unexpected picture, an image from 1580 of Queen Elizabeth playing the lute. Do you think she took requests?

Elizabeth I Playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Symbols and secrets

Elizabethan culture was packed with signs and symbols. Images and words had multiple meanings, some public and openly acknowledged, others to do with families, family trees and mottos and coats of arms, others deeply personal and private. The miniatures on display reveal a complicated combination of all three.

So, for example, much of the symbolism surrounding he Queen was straightforward enough, beginning with the Tudor rose symbolising her family lineage and including flowers or jewels which symbolised constancy and virtue. No surprises there.

But what are we to make of an image like this, of a young man, not wearing a ruff, with his doublet casually open, set against a backdrop of roaring flames?

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

The commentary says we can be confident that this symbolises ‘burning love’. Fair enough, but what comes over in the section devoted to symbolism, allegory and secret meanings is just how much we don’t know – just how much of the carefully worked symbolism in these paintings has been lost forever. Even of this image, the commentary is forced to speculate:

The man, dressed only in his undone shirt, holds a jewel. This is perhaps a miniature case containing an image of his love, who was presumably the intended recipient of this portrait.

Perhaps. Presumably. Next to it is a weird image of a young man clasping a hand apparently emerging from a cloud in the sky above.

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Because the Latin inscription written either side of his head translates as ‘Because of Athenian love’ the commentary says that the whole image may imply male homosexual love, which was associated with ancient Greece. May. Despite the fact that sodomy was punishable by death under Elizabethan law, so you’d have thought it was not something you’d leave incriminating evidence about, let alone commission the Queen’s own artist to publicise.

Next to it is a portrait of an unknown man, whose meaning, the commentary records, ‘is now obscure, as the identity of the man and the context of the miniature are lost’.

My point being that encountering a steady succession of images of unknown men or unknown women, with obscure or ambiguous mottos, clasping jewels or flowers which presumably had some meaning for them – but reading time and again how their identities and meanings are now long lost – creates a cumulative sense of mystery and uncertainty. Which is all rather wonderful and charming.

The images are so fantastically precise and perfect – and yet their meanings escape us. In some ways that’s frustrating. But in others it’s rather liberating.

Leicester and Essex

One section brings out the age gap between the two artists by comparing their patrons.

Hilliard b.1547, was patronised by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), Elizabeth’s favourite in the early part of her reign. Hilliard’s portrait of Leicester from 1576 was one of my favourite three or four works from the show. What it lacks in strict anatomical accuracy, it more than makes up for in the tremendous sense of character and personality which it conveys. And, the closer you look, the more unbelievable the detailed painting of the great man’s fine white ruff becomes. This object is only about three inches in diameter. The fineness of the detailing is quite staggering.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

By contrast, Oliver, born 18 years after Hilliard, in 1565, was taken up by the great court favourite of the second half of Elizabeth’s career, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. Oliver painted Essex, his friend the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and others in their circle including Southampton’s cousins, the Browne brothers, examples of which are here.

Full-length portraits

Expecting only to see face portraits, I was surprised to discover the exhibition included a whole section devoted to full-length portraits, mostly of a very particular type.

From the late 1580s, both Hilliard and Oliver, like other artists of their day, produced a number of portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or reclining in gardens, or in wilder landscapes. Common poses included the head resting on one hand or the arms crossed. These images would have been read by their contemporaries as depictions of the fashionable ‘complaint’ of Melancholy.

One of the most famous of these (possibly because I’ve seen it on the covers of half a dozen different book editions of Elizabethan sonnets and so forth) is Hilliard’s depiction of a noble youth, posed full length and leaning moodily against a tree.

Young Man Among Roses' by Nicholas Hilliard

Young Man Among Roses’ by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1588)

Obviously enough, the figure is surrounded by elaborately painted rose bushes alive with thorns. Presumably these represent the thorns and snares of earthly love and so – presumably – would have had a significant personal meaning for the subject and, presumably, commissioner of the work. But then the commentary points out:

The symbolism of the roses, combining beautiful flowers and sharp thorns, and the Latin motto, suggest that its subject is the pain associated with loyalty to someone who has fallen from favour. It has been suggested that the miniature depicts the young Earl of Essex pining for the loss of the queen’s favour, but the context of the poem from which the motto is taken suggests a political affiliation gone wrong.

As so often, we don’t know and so the entire image becomes a prompt for all kinds of pleasantly romantic speculation.

Oliver branches out

If I was slightly surprised by the full-length portraits, I was astonished when the exhibition went on into a section describing the artistic diversity of the younger man, Oliver, who was far more experimental than Hilliard.

For a start, Oliver tackled overtly religious subjects, something Hilliard doesn’t seem to have done, and we are shown a portrait of Christ he did.

Even more surprisingly, the painting is done using stippling i.e. there are no direct lines defining the image, the whole thing is built up solely through the application of brief impressions of paint. The result is that it looks completely unlike anything else in the show, and resembles more the large paintings of contemporary Italian Renaissance artists such as Correggio and Federico Barocci. Soft and blurry, unlike any other of the images here.

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Also distinctive to Oliver was sketching and drawing. The exhibition shows two A4-size pencil drawings, one of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Maybe Oliver’s French origins connected him culturally to the European Catholic tradition. There are no religious paintings by Hilliard.

Most surprising of all is this large-scale work, sometimes titled An Allegory, sometimes A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love, by Oliver.

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

As so often we are not completely sure, but experts think that this picture shows an allegory of virtuous and immoral love.

On the left, a soberly dressed group of middle-class women, accompanied by a man, walk through woodland. To the right, richly and colourfully dressed women, probably prostitutes, are gathered around a reclining man. Behind these figures a number of other couples embrace in the woodland, and three different types of hunting are taking place: hawking, boar-hunting and shooting ducks. The miniature displays Oliver’s extraordinary skill, at a relatively early stage in his career, in creating a complex, crowded scene, convincing spatial recession and a sense of movement.

Maybe. Perhaps.

James I

The Stuart royal family

A separate room explores aspects of the change which came over the arts when Elizabeth died in 1601 and was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of Britain. Unlike Elizabeth, James was married with children and thus the need for accurate portraits was greatly multiplied, and they were of a different type. While Elizabeth had to appear stern and aloof, many of the Stuart portraits feel softer and more intimate, as if to be shared among an extended family circle.

While James continued to patronise ‘our well-beloved servant Nicholas Hillyard’, in 1605 the more artistically adventurous queen consort Anne of Denmark appointed Isaac Oliver her ‘Painter for the art of limning’ for the same salary as Hilliard, £40 a year.

The result is a series of miniatures of king, queen and their three children, Henry, Prince of Wales, Princess Elizabeth and Charles, Duke of York. The exhibition shows us portraits by Hilliard and Oliver of the same royals, allowing us to compare their styles.

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Maybe I was subliminally influenced by the extraordinary ‘softness’ of the Jesus portrait, but I thought I detected a general softening of outlines in these Stuart portraits, especially by Oliver.

The level of detail – the hair styling, ruffs and jewels – is the same as the Elizabethan portraits but – maybe it was just me, but – I thought somehow the overall effect of the images was less sharp and precise and, somehow, more gentle.

One thing which definitely changes is the use of red velvet curtains as a background. The Elizabethan images tended to be set against an abstract colour wash, often blue. Now the royals are standing in front of a luxurious red backdrop implying wealth and grandeur of a more baroque and continental style.

Masques

James’s court saw the rise in popularity of masques, elaborate entertainments expensively staged with generally allegorical or classical subjects, words provided by the poet laureate Ben Jonson and sets and costumes by Inigo Jones. Masques were:

hugely expensive and elaborate court entertainments involving music, dance, poetry and sometimes prose. They were performed by courtiers and members of the royal family. Some took place in the Inns of Court and at courtiers’ homes, but the most spectacular were staged at royal palaces, and involved magnificent costumes and sets.

Some historians I’ve read detect in the popularity of masques among the royal court, a movement away from the sunlit, open-air progressions, tournaments and hunts favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The old queen spent a lot of time travelling round the country, imposing on her aristocratic hosts and asking for large entertainments to be staged, in order to make herself known to her subjects and celebrated as the nexus of national power.

In sharp contrast the masque was a form of entertainment which was held indoors, often at night amid candlelight, and was highly exclusive, restricted to close courtly circles.

Puritans, the more radically Protestant wing of the Church of England, saw in these masques and in their pagan, classical subject matter, a form of blasphemy. The way they were held in private gave rise to dark rumours of immorality, an accusation supported by one of the miniatures here, a portrait of an aristocratic lady dressed as the Roman goddess Flora and wearing a surprisingly diaphanous blouse.

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Take a magnifying glass

A contemporary wrote of these miniatures that ‘the art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great … that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties’ and he raises an important point.

Almost all the works on display in this exhibition are very, very small.

Luckily (vitally), the National Portrait Gallery is handing out free magnifying glasses for visitors (you hand them back at the end) and I found I had to combine the magnifying glass and my own glasses to get a really clear, close-up, in-focus view of each picture.

Summary

This is an absorbing and fascinating exhibition. Being forced to look so very closely at the faces and the finely written mottos, and the astonishingly detailed ruffs and jewels and hairdos of so many of these figures, famous or anonymous, from royalty to dashing adventurers like Walter Raleigh, can’t help giving you the feeling you’re getting really close to these people, looking right into their eyes, rubbing right up against the mystery of their images and dress and symbols.

And when you guess at the meanings of the often unknown symbols, and wonder about the purposes of the pictures (as love tokens, gifts to spouses, favours from royalty or aristocratic patrons), you feel that you, too, are becoming part of the dance of meanings which wove in and out of late Elizabethan and early Stuart courtly culture. This is a wonderfully evocative and beautifully staged exhibition.

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Gainsborough’s Family Album @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition is pure visual, intellectual and emotional pleasure. It is beautifully hung and really informatively labelled and guided. In particular the American scholar who curated it, David Solkin, is pitch perfect in his audioguide commentary, telling you exactly what you need to know about each key painting, and about Gainsborough’s wider family background.

It’s a simple enough idea: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of the 18th century’s most successful portrait painters, rising from modest beginnings in Sudbury Suffolk, to owning a mansion on Pall Mall and being painter to Britain’s aristocracy, rivalled only by the towering figure of his contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But alongside his formal commissions he painted an unusual number of portraits of his immediate and extended family. This exhibition brings together some 50 of these paintings and a few drawings, some familiar from national collections, some never before publicly displayed, to tell the story of his changing and evolving painterly style, as well as the biographies of himself, his wife and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, and other members of the extended family.

It’s not quite a portrait of the age but it’s certainly a portrait of a charming, sometimes tragic, often comic and endearing family, told via sketches, drawings and paintings which are sometimes breath-takingly beautiful.

The two Gainsboroughs

It’s always seemed to me there are two Gainsboroughs: the early paintings from the 1740s feature beanpole figures with Woodentop faces which I personally find difficult to take seriously.

the artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

The artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

Then something seismic happened to his technique during the 1750s, so that within a decade his handling of the human face had become marvellously expressive, and his handling of the volume and shape of the human body, masterful.

The following is one of my all-time favourite paintings, one of the best depictions of love and affection and innocence I know of. it looks and feels as if by a completely different artist from the painting above.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

It demonstrates several of Gainsborough’s qualities. One is the characteristic ‘feathering’ of the trees and clouds in the background. Another is that it is unfinished – a lot of the paintings in this exhibition are unfinished. They demonstrate his sprezzatura, his ability to rough out an image at astonishing speed.

And for me, personally, I love the way you can see the artist at work. I almost like the rough sketching of the arms and hands as much as the smooth finish of the seraphic faces. They remind me of the quick evocative charcoal sketches by Degas which were exhibited next door at the National Gallery earlier this year. I love draughtsmanship, outlines, the miraculous way a few lines on a flat surface can conjure up the look and feel of warm human bodies, and many of even the most mature paintings on display here have an unfinished quality, which allows you to enjoy Gainsborough’s terrific verve and confidence.

Gainsborough’s speed

In fact Gainsborough’s legendary speed often caused him problems. One was that, even once he was famous, his clients regularly complained that he’d left his paintings unfinished. There’s an example here of his wife, done in sumptuous silks but, when you look closer, lacking hands, as if he was in too much of a hurry to bother.

As to sheer speed the commentary tells us that he made this painting of his nephew and protégé, Gainsborough Dupont, in one hour. One hour. It is riveting to be able to examine this painting really closely and observe the nerveless precision of his draughtsmanship and the dash and confidence of his brushstrokes. The eyes and eyebrows in particular dazzled me. Note the ‘feathering’ effect of the background and the quick, dashed-off impression of the boy’s ‘cavalier’ costume.

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist's nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

The influence of van Dyck

As he became more successful the young painter moved from his Suffolk home to the fashionable spa resort of Bath. Here he made important contacts with rich clients and also got the opportunity, when visiting the aristocracy, to see their collections of Old Masters.

Of all the past masters, the one that struck him most was Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish painter who came over to work at the court of Charles I in the 1630s. I’d love to know whether it was the deliberate attempt to copy van Dyck which led to the revolution in his work which I indicated above. Certainly Gainsborough revered van Dyck till his dying day. In fact the exhibition tells us that, as his death from terminal cancer approached, he told those around him he wanted to be measured against van Dyck, and apparently his very last words were ‘Van Dyck is right’.

The commentary on the Gainsborough Dupont portrait mentions that van Dyck used flicks of red to create depth of colouring of human skin and then points out just such red flecks which you can see if look closely above the figure’s left eye. It’s the type of opportunity to lean right into the real paintings, and to really appreciate their subtle technique – to see at first hand exactly how paint is laid onto the canvas – which makes visiting exhibitions like this so worthwhile.

Gainsborough’s daughters

The exhibition brings together all twelve surviving portraits Gainsborough made of his beloved daughters. The ones of them as children are wonderful (see above) but the portraits follow them through into young womanhood and then maturity. We learn at one point that he taught them both how to paint landscapes so that they would have a trade to fall back on in case he should be struck down. Later on we learn that the younger sister married but the marriage broke down after just two years. She suffered mental illness and moved in with her older sister who never married and cared for her for the rest of her life.

In this painting I was drawn to the peripheral details, to Gainsborough’s ‘feathery’ treatment of the trees’ foliage, and to the shaggy dog, a symbol, we are told, of fidelity, to the extraordinary finish on the shimmering silk of the daughter on the left. But keep returning to the faces, especially of the daughter on the right, which seems to frank and open and candid.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Gainsborough’s wife

Family tradition had it that Gainsborough painted a portrait of his wife every year and gave it to her as a present on their wedding anniversary.

The commentary doesn’t make a meal of it but strongly hints that Gainsborough was serially unfaithful to his wife who was well known for having a fierce temper. Maybe the paintings were a form of atonement.

Rather beautifully, their relationship is discussed in terms of their dogs because Thomas owned a brisk alert collie which he called Fox (maybe because it looked a bit fox-like but also in humorous reference to the fat radical politician of the day, Charles James Fox). His wife owned a spaniel, which she named Tristram after the hero of the wildly popular contemporary novel, Tristram Shandy. Moreover:

‘Whenever [Gainsborough] spoke crossly to his wife …he would write a note of repentance, sign it with the name of his favourite dog, ‘Fox’, and address it to his Margaret’s pet spaniel, ‘Tristram’. Fox would take the note in his mouth and duly deliver it…’

In 1746, aged just 19, Gainsborough had married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a £200 annuity on the couple. The commentary points out that at various tight moments in the 1750s and before he became successful, the couple had to borrow extensively against the promise of this annuity.

Apparently, Margaret was the tough-minded, business-minded person in the relationship, with Gainsborough being the more slothful and phlegmatic. He casually had affairs. She went mad with anger.

None of this is present in the later portraits of her, quite a few of which are gathered here, which really beautifully capture the flavour of mature married love, of mutual forgiveness and affection. Next to the daughters with the invisible cat, this painting of Margaret Gainsborough was my favourite work in the show. It is marvellous how he has captured (or invented or created) the impression of deep and affectionate character in her face, in the deep calm accepting maturity of her gaze.

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Other points

The exhibition has other themes. Although he made his living as a Society portrait painter, throughout his life Gainsborough’s first love was landscape painting, and the exhibition contains a massive unfinished landscape, included on the pretext that two of the figures in its central incident of a farm cart pulled by unruly horses are based on his two daughters (the white-chested figure looking up, and the woman being pulled up into the cart).

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

We learn an awful lot about Gainsborough’s extended family and there is a big family tree at the start of the show showing just how extensive it was. The wall labels give us interesting anecdotes about his father and mother (he went bankrupt) about his sisters (one was a milliner which gave him a lifelong interest in fabrics and women’s dresses) about one brother, Humphrey, who became a non-conformist minister and was also a noted inventor, while the other one, John, became known in the family as ‘Scheming Jack’ because of his endless moneymaking plans and schemes all of which came to nothing with the result that Scheming Jack and his family lived on handouts from his siblings.

In other words, there’s a lot of fascinating gossip-cum-social history mixed in with the art appreciation.

And then there is the steady sequence of self-portraits, not quite as profound and searching as, say, Rembrandt’s, but stretching from his earliest works in the 1740s right to the end of his life in 1788, which take you on a fascinating journey from ambitious neophyte, to proud father, to accomplished craftsman, to ageing husband.

The exhibition tells us that he wanted this self-portrait to be the approved one, with (as the commentary points out) its rather quizzical raised eyebrow, and the air of a calm mature man, confident in his powers and conscious of a life well lived (and note the jazzy, unfinished squiggles which depict his neckerchief. Dazzling sprezzatura and confidence right to the end!)

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

This is a wonderful, gossipy, beautiful and life-affirming exhibition.

Battle of the videos

NPG have commissioned an official video of the show:

But there’s also an informal review by Visiting London Guide which shows more pictures and gives more information.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Always look on the bleak side of life

Rule one is that, in modern photography, it is forbidden to smile. Photographing anyone smiling instantly leads to your cameras being confiscated. Photographing anyone laughing leads to instant banishment.

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel ClarkeGrifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Photography is a serious business. Life is all about being isolated and alienated. A tragic affair. None of the sitters in the 57 photographic portraits on show in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 is smiling, let alone laughing. Most have expressions of mute despair, sullen passivity, stare plaintively at the camera or mournfully off into the distance.

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Remember that awful movie, Dumb and Dumber. This is a display of Serious and Seriouser.

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Teenagers are good, because they come with built-in sulkiness (which, as the owner of two teenagers, I know only too well).

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

A number of the sitters are actually crying, this guy because he’s just been given a beating in a kids’ boxing competition. Yes, life is a tragic business.

Runner Up from the series Double Jab ABC Show by Sawm Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

Runner Up from the series ‘Double Jab ABC Show’ by Sam Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

I wonder if anyone submits photos of people smiling, laughing, joking or having fun, and the judges systematically weed them all out to produce this uniformly glum set of portraits. Or whether clued-up entrants know from their photography courses (by far the majority of snappers in the competition have degrees in photography) that happiness is not art.

Africa

It’s a shame the selection on display makes such a cumulatively negative and depressing impact because, taken individually, there are lots of absolutely brilliant photos here.

And the locations, ages and types of sitter are pretty varied and interesting. It’s true that, as last year, there is a heavy bias towards British photographers (over half) and Americans (about 10 out of 57). But they get around a lot – especially to Africa, which was the setting for a brilliant couple of photos by Joey Lawrence.

Portrait of 'Strong' Joe Smart from, the series Tombo's Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

Portrait of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart from the series Tombo’s Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

This portrait won third prize. Another image which drew me further in the more I looked, was of a teenager called Sarah in Uganda, photographed by Dan Nelken.

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series the Women of Rutal Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series The Women of Rural Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

In fact, the winning photo was one of a series by Alice Mann taken of drum majorettes in South Africa.

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

About 24 of the 64 or so sitters featured in the photos are black. Precisely 32, half the sitters, are white.

Stories

The three photos above, and the suggestive titles of the series which they’re from, raises the matter of the stories behind the photos.

Because the exhibition doesn’t just show 57 photos cold – each one comes with two wall labels, one telling us quite a bit of biography about each photographer (like the fact that most of them are British and most of them have studied photography at university or art college).

And another, often quite lengthy label, telling us about the sitter and the circumstances behind the photo. In some cases these stories are more interesting and thought-provoking than the photos themselves. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand words can say as much or more than a picture.

Take the first of the three black kids, above: we learn that the photo of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart was made in the remote village of Tombohuaun in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone where Joey Lawrence (Canadian b.1989, self taught) was working with the charity WaterAid. It interested me to learn that Joe had made this mask while playing with his mates, and in between shots mucked about and giggled. It says a lot for the aesthetic of modern photography that no photos were taken of these high spirits. Instead he is depicted like a Victorian angel staring sensitively and seriously into the philosophical distance.

The photo of Keisha Ncube, a nine-year-old drum majorette, is by Alice Mann (b.1991 South Africa, studied photography at the University of Cape Town). It’s one of a set of four on show here (from a much bigger series) all of which are composed beautifully and taken with pin-point digital clarity. The wall label explains how many of these girls come from very poor backgrounds but how saving up for, or making, the costumes, and taking part in the activities gives them a strong sense of dignity and self worth.

Similarly, the photo of Sarah, aged 13, carrying a five-gallon jerrycan of water on her head is a strong image to begin with but gains immeasurably from learning more about the village and her background. The photographer, Dan Nelkin, was born in 1949 in New York.

Unsmiling kids

I counted 64 people in the 57 photos, of whom 31 are children (plus two babies).

Kids give you instant pathos. Especially if you tell them to stop smiling, laughing and fooling around, stand still and look mournful. The wall label explains that Lo Pò (b.1979 studied photography at the London College of Communication) had spent a long frustrating day trying to photograph a racehorse in Sardinia, packed it in and went for a meal at a local pizzeria. Coming out he spotted this pale freckled girl playing with friends. He asked her parents if he could photograph her and placed her against the warm plaster wall which brings out the tones in her skin and hair. It’s an amazing and striking photograph. But it did make me laugh that the first thing the photographer did was stop her playing with her friends. Now, now, none of that laughing and smiling: this is art! Instead she is carefully posed in the soulful, intense, rather numb expression which is the visual style of our age.

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Charlie Forgham-Bailey (b.1989, based London, studied French and Philosophy at uni) is represented by a set of four photos of boy footballers, who were taking part in the Danone World Cup four unsmiling, stern looking young dudes.

Ditto this photo of ‘Rishai’, snapped by Meredith Andrews, sitting sternly unsmiling on his bike. ‘Don’t smile kid – this is art!’

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Two particular photos of kids take the art of seriousness to new levels; by Richard Ansett (b.1966), they are from two series, one titled After the Attack (The Manchester bombing) showing a teenager in her bedroom who witnessed the bombing and has had difficulty leaving her house, since; and one titled Children of Grenfell, whose subject matter you can probably guess.

Old people

But it isn’t just kids who can look grim and unsmiling. Images of old people, the more vulnerable the better, can always be relied on for instant pathos.

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn't Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn’t Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Even famous old people. There’s a dazzling photo of Hollywood legend Christopher Walken (although can anyone name a movie he’s been in since the Deer Hunter?) Against a jet black background, his aged haunted face looms pale and haunted. It’s fascinating to learn that the session took only a few minutes, the photographer Anoush Abrar (b.1976 Tehran, masters degree in photography) setting up, just the two of them in the room, the photos taking just moments to take.

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Katherine Hamnett is featured. Who? The fashion designer who hit the headlines way back in 1984 when she was invited to meet the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and wore a white t-shirt of her down design emblazoned with the words ‘58% don’t want Pershing’ referring to Ronald Reagan’s siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. Ah, I remember it well. So I was a little surprised to see that she’s still alive, not so surprised to learn that she’s spent a lot of the intervening 34 years making more t-shirts with ‘political’ slogans on them, and not in the slightest bit surprised that the latest one is anti-Brexit photo by Pedro Alvarez (b.1972 took a degree in photography at Blackpool Uni).

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Ordinary adults

But most people aren’t babies, kids, teenagers or pensioners. Most people belong to the age range 18 to 65. But this age group, what you might call ordinary everyday people, the kind you go into a work environment and see, or see on the Tube at rush hour.

In contrast to serious children, sensitive artists and sad old people I liked some of the photos of blokes. Here’s a geezer, Conor, with his dog Levi, snapped by Tom Cockram (b.1986, BS Hons in photography from Manchester Metropolitan University).

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

The more I looked at this, the more I liked it, though it took a while to figure out why. First, the subject does not fill the frame (compare and contrast with all the images, above). He is set in a landscape, which just makes it visually more interesting. And the landscape itself is intriguing, the way the heavy mist obscures the trees on the horizon, and teases you to try and decipher the types of buildings behind them – hotel, council estate, I think that’s a petrol station on the right. And then there’s the visual relation between one man and his dog, the way the sloped back of the politely sitting dog makes a line which, if you extended it, would touch the man’s head, in other words together they form a triangle, hidden, concealed in the photo, but which, I think, subtly gives it a unity of composition.

Also featuring a bit more background than usual, and an intriguing one at that, is this photo of a ‘guest at a graduation party’ by Adam Hinton (b.1965).

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

The wall label tells us that Hinton had travelled to Plovdiv in Bulgaria to document the largest Roma community in Europe and came across a party celebrating the graduation of several young women from the local university.

I liked this photo because it is not of a serious-looking child, nor of a frail and vulnerable old lady, nor of a high-minded liberal fashionista. It captures the spirit and culture of the huge number of people across Europe, who aren’t educated, don’t read new novels, go to the opera or art galleries, who just make a living trading horses, dealing in scrap metal, working as seasonal labourers, fixing up cars, running second hand TV shops, men who try to do the best for their wives and kids, and on special occasions dress up in bling and greased hair.

It reminded me of some of the photos I’ve seen at the Calvert 22 Foundation, which focuses on art and photography from East European countries, or the absolutely brilliant photos of men and landscapes around the Black Sea taken by Vanessa Winship and featured in a recent exhibition at the Barbican.

I liked all these because they are unusual.

By contrast when I read that one of the photographers on display here had set off on a 1,000 mile roadtrip round America on a Harley Davidson bike, photographing the weird and eccentric people she met, my heart sank. If I never see another black and white photo of weird and kooky, provincial, backwoods, redneck characters from America, it will be soon.

Rinko Kawauchi

There is absolutely no requirement for the exhibition as a whole to be representative of everything. I just like counting, noting data sets, trends, numbers. My day job is a data analyst for a government agency.

Thus I couldn’t help noticing the complete absence of images from India or China which, between them, have 2.7 billion people, 38% of the world’s population. Also because I’m still savouring the exhibition of works by Vasantha Yogananthan at the Photographers’ Gallery. It’s a big country, India. Lots of people. Very colourful. Not here at all (there is one photo of a British Sikh).

I wonder why. Don’t Indians apply? Do Westerners not go looking for colourful subjects in India any more (as they obviously still do in Africa, from the evidence here)?

A country which was specifically represented was Japan, in the form of a special feature – a wall of eleven works by Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Kawauchi’s work came to prominence with the simultaneous publication of three books: Hanako (a documentary of a young girl of the same name), Hanabi (which translates as ‘fireworks’) and Utatane (a Japanese word that describes the state between wakefulness and sleep. In 2002 Kawauchi was awarded the Kimura-Ihei-Prize, Japan’s most important emerging talent photography prize, following the publication of her first photobooks.

Her photos are about delicacy. She shoots in a way which lets in so much light that the photos are almost over-exposed, have a milky misty quality. And her subject appears to be the everyday life of her family – ‘small events glimpsed in passing’ – including a couple of striking images of adults holding a tiny, tiny baby.

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. ABP stands for the Association of Black Photographers.

Originally based in Brixton, ABP moved to a new, purpose-built gallery and offices at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007. It is here that the ABP gallery is currently hosting two FREE exhibitions of photography by black photographers.

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers

For some years photographer Franklyn Rodgers has been taking large-scale portrait photos of the most important person in his life, his mother, Loretta. More recently he has branched out into taking portraits of Loretta’s circle of friends and family. To quote the man himself:

Devotion – A Portrait of Loretta represents the connectivity between faith, family and friends, echoed in the wider social experience assigned to them in their time and location. It is a meditation on strength, resilience, fortitude and the ability to endure. It is an idea through which the connectivity it brokers opens up the reconfiguring of survival, rooted firmly in the legacy of a cultural matriarch. To pay homage, both as Loretta’s son and as an artist, in recognition of a way of thinking that represents a coping mechanism to collectively overcome, forgive and conversely transform: a process of creation through a different lens. Evidenced over time in the cultural landscape that now defines our nation.

The photos are enormous and capture a staggering amount of detail.

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Friendships

As the director of ABP, Dr Mark Sealy MBE, puts it:

Loretta and the devoted network of relationships that are presented in the exhibition could, if we so choose, unlock the face of our own humanity. ‘Identity is not only a departure from self; it is a return to self’ (French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) This unlocking process, however, only becomes possible at the point in which we fully recognise the civil responsibility we have for both Loretta and her friends. The underlying theoretical question with which Rodgers’ photography works presents us fundamentally concerns our understanding of what it means to actually look into the human face.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Confrontations

It is certainly true that the size of the portraits, and the way they are cropped very closely so as to be, literally, in your face, is almost forcing a response, coercing you to engage somehow, forcing us ‘to unlock the face of our own humanity’ maybe.

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Care

Probably the portraits are a mirror and you project onto them your own concerns. Because I cared for both my parents as they died, and have been the main carer for my children, these enormous portraits trigger emotions of care and concern in me. These women look as if they have lived. They look as if they have suffered. I found myself uncomfortably moved by them. Unsettled by their unrelenting gaze.

Sealy again:

Through his photographs of his mother Rodgers invites us to enter the sacred realm of human recognition. In his hands the camera is repurposed as a device that aids the case for greater safekeeping and care across the human condition.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Technical fluency

But maybe that’s just me, my life experiences, which I’m projecting onto them.

On the technical front, I am astonished at the pin-prick clarity of such enormous prints. Having recently seen the vast photographic prints by Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery, and the massive photos by Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery, I realise that we are living in an age when photos can now be blown-up and printed on an enormous scale without losing – in fact, enhancing – a tremendous, an almost intimidating, clarity of detail.

But whereas Prager’s and Gursky’s photos are almost entirely staged to capture large groups of people or (in Prager’s case) bizarre scenes, Rodgers’ photos obviously have a completely different feel. I wouldn’t call it ‘intimate’, they’re too big for that. But about as close up as you can get to a human face. And determined to capture every pore and blemish of the skin.

Looking again, I realise that all the faces are completely expressionless. I think it was at the National Portrait Gallery’s 2017 exhibition that I noticed that not a single one of the 70 or so portraits on display showed a single person smiling, let alone laughing i.e. it’s a common trope or convention of 21st century portraiture, to remain completely expressionless..

Maybe smiling or laughing immediately limits a portrait, because the viewer knows what mood the sitter is in. Smiling or laughter defuse the tension between viewer and portrait.  Whereas depicting blank unsmiling portraits makes the face so much more powerful, inscrutable and mysterious.

What, you find yourself asking, is this array of senior citizens thinking? About their experiences of being black in Britain? About the nature of identity in a society mediated by images? About what’s for dinner? Who knows.

Time

As T.S. Eliot wrote a hundred years ago, ‘Time is time and runs away.’

Sealy again:

The act of photographing his mother’s face also marks Rodgers’s awareness of time moving uncontrollably fast. This sense of temporal dis-ease creates the conditions of having to act in the present and take responsibility for the now. Rodgers’ photographs of his mother and her circle of friends are therefore an invitation to look into their faces as part of a self-reflective journey to one’s own humanity, because, ultimately, it is only when we can recognise all the Lorettas of the world that we can then recognise ourselves.

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

It’s a room full of intense, brilliant and powerfully questioning portraits.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

BP Portrait Award 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibition

The BP portrait competition is in its 38th year. This year it received 2,580 entries by artists from 87 countries around the world. The judges selected a short list of 53 portraits and these are on display at the National Portrait in London. (Entry is FREE so there’s no excuse for not popping in, even for ten minutes.)

From this short list the judges then selected a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize, along with a Young artist and Travel award. There are wall panels next to each painting giving some background to the artist and the sitter. The prize winners have an extra panel explaining what the judges liked about these particular works enough to award them prizes.

Undiverse

Even though there are exactly the same number of works as last year, this year’s exhibition felt somehow smaller to me. The overall standard is still immensely impressive – anybody would be proud to have painted any one of these works – but, taken together, there seemed a bit less variety than I remember from previous years.

For example, having gone round several times, I realised that in the 53 works there were only four black people and one Asian person depicted, plus one painting which showed a Syrian refugee mother and child. That appeared to be ‘it’ in terms of diversity – odd because art galleries are, by and large, hotbeds of political correctness.

The exhibition publicity emphasises that entries come from 87 countries, but you couldn’t really have told just by looking at them. The Syrian refugees were the only people who looked remotely ‘foreign’. And maybe a portrait of an old black guy who looks like he’s from the American Deep South.

So 1. The show feels overwhelmingly white and English.

Reading the wall labels about the artist and the sitter, I quickly got bored of reading that the sitter was a ‘friend’ of the artist and, more often than not, themselves a fellow artist, or writer, or poet, or musician.

2. The subjects were not only predominantly white, but overwhelmingly members of the white, liberal, creative & artistic community.

I began to find this white, middle-class, bien-pensant milieu a bit stifling. Where are the foreigners, the Africans and Asians and Latinos, the manual labourers, the working class, the immigrants – or the rich and arrogant bankers, the oligarchs, their helicopter pilots and security guards, the teeming multicultural masses of the modern United Kingdom and the other 86 countries who sent in entries? Not in this final selection.

The prize winners

This narrowness was confirmed by a look at the prize winners. Four out of the five are portraits of women (the fifth is of a boy). No men. And the judges’ comments on the winners were, I thought revealing. First prize was Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, a portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the tenderness and intimacy of Sullivan’s composition, evoking Madonna and Child paintings through the ages and the depth of the maternal bond.’

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Second prize went to Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann (November 2016), another portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the artist’s refined and detailed technique, which adds to the subject’s sense of stillness, strength and serenity.’

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Third prize went to Emma by Antony Williams (March 2016), a long-term sitter for the artist.

‘The judges felt that the artist’s intimate and distinctive technique lends the sitter’s form an almost sculptural density and solidity.’

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

The Young Artist award went to Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane (2017), another portrait of the artist’s partner.

‘The judges felt that this sensitive painting captures a moment in time and a casual, fleeting expression, rather than the ‘held’ pose more usual in formal portrait painting.’

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

So: the winners were four completely realistic oil portraits of white women painted by their husbands or partners, which demonstrate tenderness, intimacy, stillness, serenity, more intimacy and sensitivity. Pretty narrow set of subjects. Pretty narrow set of aesthetic values.

Even in terms of age the subjects all come from the same narrow range – white women in their thirties.

Very samey, don’t you think? Not really any of the ‘diversity’, a quality which London galleries normally bend over backwards to demonstrate.

Ones I liked

By contrast let me share some of the paintings I liked. (They were all paintings. I was disappointed not to see any sculptures or videos until I looked up the prize rules:

  • The work entered must be predominantly painted in oil, tempera or acrylic and must be on a stretcher or board, preferably framed and unglazed. No watercolours, works on paper or pastels will be considered.
  • The work entered should be a painting based on a sitting or study from life and the human figure must predominate.
  • Self-portraits and group portraits are permitted.)

Looking carefully again and again, trying to identify favourites and figure out why, made me really notice how very many of the entries are not just realistic but have a photographic realism.

1. Men

Tough though Honest Thomas looks, he is in fact not only a friend of the artist but an artist in his own right, who makes hand-crafted leather objects.

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Delfin is a portrait of the artist’s father. This might be the only time I’ve ever seen those myriad little shaving cuts which are so common in real life, and which older men are particularly liable to, depicted in a ‘work of art’.

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

This is another portrait which could be a photograph and is immensely flavoursome. Matt is, as usual, a friend of the artist, and, as usual, is himself an artist, musician and actor.

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Lucy Stopford’s portrait of Dr Tim Moreton is a rare exception to the photographic realism of most of the works. It is the only one which gestures to any of the twentieth century’s non-realistic artistic styles or inventions. I liked it for that alone. As to the subject, Tim was registrar at the National Portrait Gallery, arranged for Lucy to see a portrait which was not on display, and they became friends. In other words, another white art world insider.

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

There is a thread in post-war British art which depicts the human subject with a kind of unforgiving ‘honesty’, which focuses on the helpless humanity of the sitter and dwells on their pasty unattractiveness. Ideally the sitter is part undressed but not in the slightest degree sexual. Their state of undress emphasises the ‘candour’ and ‘honesty’ of the image. The image bravely captures their slack muscles, sallow skin, their pasty complexion and flaccid legs with an unflinching ‘honesty’. Generally, we are meant to be moved by the honesty and lack of glamorising of the subject. Oh, cries the painter – the humanity!

Lucien Freud was maybe the most famous exponent of this style, where the skin of white people is in fact a sour yellow interspersed with unhealthy green, the cruelly-exposed body is a thing of pallor and varicose veins. It amounts to a ‘corpse look’.

This portrait of Antonio Lopez seems to me slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

(And reminds me of the half-nakedness and deliberate green & yellow-coloured flesh tones of the prize winner, Breech! It’s a popular look.)

In fact this is a characteristic work in a number of ways:

  • the corpse look
  • photographic realism
  • close personal relationship with the artist – Lopez is one of Spain’s most renowned realist painters and the artist, de Aragon, was for some time his assistant.

And there’s one other aspect – see how grim the sitter looks. Not only does his body look dead, but so does his facial expression. The human face is capable of hundreds of facial expressions which we are quick to read and interpret. It was looking at grim Antonio which made me realise that none of the people in any of these paintings has any facial expression at all. It is an exhibition of zombies.

Here’s a portrait of Lemn Sissay who is, by now I was not surprised to learn, a writer and poet. It stands out in this exhibition simply for not being a portrait of a middle-class white person. The orange polo neck jumper and big necklace come from a different zone, a different tradition, as does his hair. The ensemble makes for a striking image.

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

2. Women

Simona is a friend of the artist’s. The painting of her has that deliberately frail, vulnerable vibe found in many of these portraits. Lots of women, across social media and the press, nowadays seem to regard wearing no make-up as a revolutionary and subversive strategy. #nomakeup. Which means my mother was a revolutionary subversive most of her life. The lack of make-up certainly contributes to the sense of vulnerability, to an air of plaintive helplessness.

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

This plaintiveness is there in the four award-winning portraits all of which show women au naturel. Maybe I’m making it up but there’s a kind of begging quality to this kind of unvarnished, vulnerable, un-made-up image of women – ‘Look at me, how fragile, helpless and vulnerable I am – but also how honest, how uncompromising’.

But mostly what I notice is how unsmiling this image is. I double checked to see if it’s against the rules to depict someone smiling but no, it’s not mentioned there. It must just be a very widespread convention, a feeling among all these artists, that a serious painting must look serious. That an artistic portrait must be unsmiling, unfrowning, un-doing anything. We live in an era of blank faces.

The subject of this one, Pen Vogier, is, as usual, a friend of the artist’s and, somewhat inevitably, herself a writer, a food historian and a bibliophile. The most obvious feature of the image is the sheeny, shiny yellow dress, rendered with the kind of bright, harsh, metallic finish which reminded me a bit of Tamara de Lempicka. Note the stern expression. Being a bibliophile is obviously a serious business. No laughs in these books.

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

According to the wall label the subject of this next portrait, Tabitha, is herself an artist (natch) who struggled with infertility. Tabitha won the Liverpool Art Prize in 2013 ‘for her work documenting her infertility and the eventual birth of Gilda.’ The painter, Hero, is a friend of hers who has also been working on ‘an ongoing artwork’ documenting the process of Tabitha’s pregnancy and the birth of Gilda.

So this is a portrait of an artist who has already won a prize for her portrayal of herself and her struggles, by her artist friend who has been short-listed for a national prize for this portrayal of the award-winning artist.

I am well aware that I am meant to be feeling moved by the sensitivity and candour of the expression on Tabitha’s face, and moved by the story of her battle against infertility, and moved by her eventual triumph, and moved by the figure of sweet little Gilda, nestled asleep against her chest. I have nestled my own little girl against my chest countless times. I know the feeling.

But I have a strong sense of being manipulated. The portrait’s ‘honesty’ and ‘candour’ are utterly conventional. This is the standard stereotyped modern look – stripped down, no make-up, quotidien female humanity in its tough pathos and unflinching vulnerability.

This ‘look’ is to our age what winsome maidens were to Victorian sentimental art – the standard identikit mood.

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

The ultimate way for an artist to paint someone close to the artist is to do a self-portrait. Ania is a self portrait of the artist. It records a period of artistic block. I like lines and abstracts so I ought to like the 45 degree orange floor, but for me any vibrancy is eclipsed by the moody misery-guts of the human figure, morosely pushing away the bowl of fruit. ‘I’m so depressed.’

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Here’s a painting of a sulky teenager. As the owner of two sulky teenagers I recognise the pose and the vibe. It’s yet another stunningly realistic painting which could easily be mistaken for a photograph. The (anonymous) sitter is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

3. Children

Cecilia is a stunning portrait of the artist’s grand-daughter. Presumably she was told not to smile.

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

This is the winner of the BP Travel Award – Jack by Caspar White. Jack is the artist’s nephew. God forbid he should smile. ‘Look serious, boy. This is art!’ It’s very visible brushstrokes are a welcome change to the immaculately photographic surfaces of so many of the works.

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

4. Group portraits

I think there are only two group portraits in the show. Why so few? Group composition is, self evidently, more complex than just plonking one person down in front of you – where are they sitting/standing, what should they be doing, if something is going on what are their responses, their expressions?

In this case (Society, below), as in every single other portrait in the exhibition, nothing is happening and none of them are smiling or showing any flicker of expression.

And, as usual, it is a portrait of some of the artist’s friends, in this case from the Ruskin School of Art. It is also notable for including a rare depiction of a non-white person.

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

The Levinsons is (I think) the only other group portrait. It stood out visually because you don’t see this kind of chiaroscuro light anywhere any more, in our electrically-lit world. A 21st century family done in the style of Rembrandt.

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

5. My favourites

I had three distinct favourites. In this kind of show (like the Royal Academy Summer exhibition) I define a ‘favourite’ as a painting I’d actually like to own and can imagine hanging on my wall.

Corinne was one of my three favourite images, not because she’s black (a rare exception in the show) but simply because her face and hair create a different shape from the scores of other very samey, white people with white person hairdos. It’s no surprise that this is one of the exhibition posters and on the cover of the book of the exhibition – it is an exceptional and exceptionally vivid likeness. The combination of the round nose and forehead with the straight black quiff create a bit of tension and visual dynamic which is generally absent from most of the other paintings.

That said, Corinne is a musician and songwriter in her own right and, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Nikki was probably my favourite painting in the whole show – a stunningly realistic depiction of a woman I feel I know or have met and who is just about to start talking, who has a wonderfully appealing air of maturity and experience. I kept returning to this one. The pink top helps. The scraggly hair is a realistic detail. But it is the light glistening on her eyes and the just-parted lips which seduced me.

Nikki is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Jessica is another stunningly realistic image. I just found it overwhelmingly there. The light falling from the left, the shadow created on the wall and across her face. Also, on examination, the way her mild green top brings out the same green in the floral wallpaper behind her and the blue strands of the wallpaper bring out her blue eyes. The fineness of the little silver chain and locket. And when you look up close, the way the inside of her arms is pale while the outside is brown and freckled, like so many light-skinned English people. I found this really hauntingly beautiful. Absorbing.

Jessica is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Photographs

All the portraits are in oil and acrylic; none of them are actually photographs. But a surprising number of them looked like photographs. Apart from the one ‘modernist’ portrait of Tim Moreton, none of the works really acknowledged that there had been a twentieth century in art – Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Warhol, Klee, Schiele, the Expressionists or Surrealists, it was as if none of them had ever lived or left their mark on the art of the portrait. The only artist whose influence I could see was the livid flesh tones of Lucien Freud’s corpse-people. Other than that the strongest influence seemed to be the photograph.

I wonder if the super-powerful cameras everyone now possesses in their mobile phones are killing art. People will carry on painting till the cows come home. But Picasso wandered round Paris with Picasso images in his head. Paul Klee’s imagination was left relatively untouched to fantasise about his scratchy cartoon people. Whereas a modern person is bombarded not only by advertising hoardings, movies and TV, but by friends ‘sharing’ photos of themselves and the kids on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a hundred other digital programs.

It’s not that we’re being bombarded with images – that’s obvious. And it’s not just that these tend to be images of the human face. My point is that we are being bombarded by photographically realistic images of the human face, and that this is having a corrosive effect on the human imagination.

As if the space to conceive of the human face and body in alternative ways, in unorthodox geometries or garish colours, is being systematically closed down. I don’t own a smart phone because I dislike their creeping invasion of people’s time and minds. They seem to me to be enforcing an insidious, creeping conformity of vision.

It’s just a personal speculation, but I wonder if smart phones are destroying the artistic imagination. I wonder if the ubiquity of their extraordinarily high resolution cameras is killing off any non-naturalistic ways of seeing the world and – in particular and as this exhibition has promoted me to wonder – of seeing the human face.

Conclusion

The National Portrait Gallery’s BP 2017 Portrait exhibition felt less varied than last year.

It felt overwhelmingly white.

With only one exception I can remember, the portraits are all highly traditional and realistic, many of them almost photographic in their accuracy.

Almost all the sitters seemed to be friends or family of the artist – and most of them were artists or musicians or poets in their own right.

What about the designers, engineers, doctors and nurses, electricians, builders, chefs, policemen, soldiers, sailors and candlestick makers which make up our society, the postmen and plumbers, the lorry drivers and checkout girls, the bankers and insurance brokers, the mortgage brokers and estate agents, the PR and press and communications and engagement officers, the school inspectors and bus drivers, the journalists and cameramen, the beauticians and masseurs, the personal trainers, the footballers and cricketers and rugby players and pentathletes, the carers and nursery nurses, the oil rig workers and tour operators, the civil servants and solicitors, the security officers and prison warders and social workers who live and work among us?

Not one is here.

Let alone the more obvious, politically correct categories like immigrants, people of all sorts of colour (Asian, Chinese, South American), the mentally ill, the disabled, the injured or disfigured, the flamboyantly gay or lesbian or trans…

Or just the flamboyant and theatrical and made-up and snazzily dressed, period – models and actors and Essex girls and lads on the pull and people who’ve had cosmetic surgery and ended up looking like fish – any one of the thousands of types and categories of weird and wonderful people who populate this wacky planet?

None.

What about depicting some of the 21 facial indications which scientists have recently tabulated and defined? Smiling, smirking, frowning, laughing, shouting, burping – expressing anger, surprise, happiness, fear, hate, disbelief, awe, respect, astonishment? Or actions involving the face like putting your hand over your mouth, over your eyes, picking your nose, cupping a hand to your ear, sticking out your tongue, closing your eyes, winking, staring, eating, drinking…?

Nada. Nichts.

From this exhibition you would deduce that the world is a white world populated entirely by artists, artists’s wives, artists’ friends, musicians, poets, actors and yet more artists, none of whom ever wear anything interesting or have any facial expressions. A world of unsmiling white zombies.

Beautifully depicted, many stunning works – but of such a narrow world. Minuscule. Microscopic.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: