BP Portrait Award 2018 Review

written by Sophie | Exhibitions

The BP Portrait Award 2018 is on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This most prestigious of portrait exhibitions is always a keenly anticipated event by artists and art lovers. It is an open exhibition and can be entered by anyone but the judges only selected 47 for the exhibition. The announcement of the short list is widely shared on social media and many share their preferred candidate. This year I heard many agreeing voices when Miriam Escofet was announced first prize winner. Her portrait of her mother is a fantastic winning portrait and deserves to win. I went to see the exhibition last week to see it for real and check out what the other 46 had to offer.

Works by J.J. Delvine (left), Zhu Tongyao and Felicia Forte.

The Judges

Every year the number of entries seems to go up and this year there were 2667 entries from 88 countries. Although the majority of submissions still comes from the UK, the competition is open and entered by artists from all over the world. In the end 48 works were selected for the exhibition. This is 7 less than previous years. The smaller gallery space might have something to do with the reduced number, I am not sure.

The judges always consist of the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, and the director of UK Arts & Culture of BP, Des Violaris. Sarah Howgate (contemporary art curator at the Portrait Gallery) has been replaced this year by Rosie Broadley (curator of 19th century art collections at the Portrait Gallery). The other judges change every year and this year we got Dr Caroline Bressey (cultural/historical geographer who specialises in the history of black culture), Glenn Brown (artist, fantastical paintings with historical references), and Rosie Millard OBE (journalist, broadcaster, head of Children and the Arts, chair of BBC Children in Need). The choice of judges seem, although slightly puzzling at first sight, a reason to expect some interesting choices

Overall Impression

The exhibition is open to artists from all over the world. So does it represent the best in the world of portraiture? No, it doesn't. As I have mentioned elsewhere it seems that every competition has its own flavour and taste, quite possibly based on it's national character. The BP Portrait Award has its own flavour. So in a way there is no point in debating the selection, and yet there is such a thing as a good drawing, a great painting, and a winning portrait. 

I found the BP exhibition a little dull this year. The selection wasn't helped by the different gallery space it is in this year. But there were many paintings I did not like. I liked about half of the works on show. There were a couple of show stoppers such as the winning painting by Miriam Escofet and Bernardo Siciliano's work. 

Some Negatives

I am never totally sure whether to write a proper review and include some negatives into this article. And of course there were negatives. I walked by paintings shaking my head saying to myself 'what were they thinking?'. Somehow it always seems easier to find faults than to put the positives into the right words. But maybe that is just my own overly-critical mind and I should suppress that and stay positive. Did I find more 'what-were-they-thinking' than previous years? Mmm, yes I actually think I did. 

The paintings seemed a little randomly chosen. There was not much cohesion in the show. Now I do not think the BP should NOT be chosen fairly 'randomly' but for some reason this year it stood out a little. So perhaps in the past the judges kept a closer eye on how the show as a whole would work. I am not sure.

Many, too many, paintings left me underwhelmed. I won’t name them as I want to always be on the side of the artist. As an artist I know how great it feels to have your work selected for a good show. So even if I don’t rate a painting, I am stil on the artist’s side. 

Too many works were simply not portraits. There is no point in having a theme of 'portraiture' if you are then going to stretch the concept so much that it actually includes all genres.  

There were too many paintings that were done by skilled artists who nevertheless lacked any vision. Brush marks, paint application, colour choices, edges and values, composition, prop choices etc etc all work towards a great painting (although in some these were lacking nevertheless). But one needs vision to create the magic that art can be. And that magic is what judges should look for. 

One can create a very skillful painting by simply putting the paint in the right place, the highlight just in the right spot on the tip of the nose. But there's more to art than just that. As the winner Miriam Escofet recently wrote on her Instagram:  "what matters is the ability to engage, seduce, move, tell a story or simply enchant through a work, in short to produce some kind of visual alchemy." That said we all know that you might be moved by a painting that leaves me cold and the other way round.... 

Works were hung too close together which caused problems in the corners especially

There is another painting hiding behind the straw hat. 

The Hang

For the first time (as far as I know) the BP exhibition was moved away from its usual gallery space and into a different and much smaller space. It is not a success. Many have commented on the cramped space, the dull lighting and the fact that the paintings are hung too close together. And I totally agree. There is simply not enough room for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to properly see the paintings. 

Crowded corners especially suffer. When one person admires one painting, he or she is blocking the view to a painting next to it on the adjoining wall. I found myself regularly stuck in a corner where I had been studying a painting and was then blocked in by crowds who were looking at the painting next to it. 

There is not enough space to see paintings from a distance and there are no 'vistas' (viewing lines from a distance) to create interesting experiences. One little painting had its own small alcove but looked totally lost in it. Some large paintings had their own wall but there was not enough room to step back and take it all in. Even smaller paintings were not given space to step back from, as you would end up stepping on the heels of visitors looking at paintings on the wall across. 

As a previous BP Travel Award winner I was particularly surprised (shall we say) to realise (belatedly I must admit) that the Travel Award works were nowhere to be seen, nor referred to, pointed to or mentioned. They simply were not there! 

On my way home I found I had totally missed the Travel Award works and learned that they were hung in a separate space, on the half landing towards the first floor. I was very disappointed to have missed it and wondered why there was no mention of it in the main exhibition space. It sure makes a difference to the pride of place my Travel Award works received back in 2014 as did other previous award winners. 

The Travel Award makes an important and interesting contribution to the exhibition as a whole. It puts portraiture into the 'real world' through the large variety of topics and sitters studied and portrayed. I find it, although not a vital element, an element that contributes an awful lot to the show as a whole (but then I would say that, perhaps) and was sad to see it demoted to a half landing without any references made to it in the main exhibition space. 


I am super pleased with this year's winner, Miriam Escofet. Her portrait of her mother, An Angel at my Table (not to be confused with the brilliant film by Jane Campion) stands out from the crowd by its sheer still beauty and skill. I am a fan of Escofet's work and highlighted a portrait by her in my review of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters earlier this year. 

The second prize went to American artist Felicia Forte this year, for a huge and impressive painting that stood out in the exhibition for its colour, size and impact. I loved the painting. I would not call it a portrait though. 

The third prize went to Chinese artist Zhu Tongyao for his portrait of Simone, a boy from Italy. 

Young Artist Award: Ania Hobson (UK)

BP Travel Award: Robert Seidel (2018 winner with a proposal to paint the faces he finds along the river Danube - a truly European project which should throw up an array of interesting material), Casper White (2017 travel award winner, works on display this year)

My favourites

Of course Miriam Escofet's winning portrait was definitely one of my favourites. But there were more!

Miriam Escofet

Escofet's portrait of her mother is beautiful in its depiction of textures, colour and composition. Despite the very muted palette there is real sense of depth, space and light. The delicate balance between values and colour is superbly executed. Escofet's trademark high finish does not give the impression of the hyper realism we sometimes see in the BP portrait Award Exhibition. Nor would anyone ever mistake this piece for a photograph. The medium of paint has been used in all its glory; it is not trying to be something it is not other than a painting. The delicate and minute paint application perfectly serves the concept of the painting; love, subtlety and refinement. 

Although it was not Escofet's goal, I cannot help but feel a little sad when I look at the painting. The lady is looking away, perhaps a little absent minded, and in thought. This impression is strengthened by the seemingly random collection of crockery. The cup in her hand does not match the teapot set (not that my mugs match my teapot, btw) and the headless 'angel cup' seems to be fading a little. I feel a little melancholic and remember I must call my mum soon. 

Miriam Escofet, An Angel at my Table, oil on linen over panel, 100x70cm

Miriam Escofet, detail

Shona Shew

Chew's portrait titled Fair Isle David is a simple head-and-shoulders portrait. It is small and honest but somehow oozes thoughtfulness. Although Shew's approach is slightly mathematical in the way it looks, with all those tiny straight-angled shapes and planes and so few fluid brush strokes, but she is a master at it and creates delicate and even tender portraits. Her works always stands out for me.

Shona Shew, Fair Isle David, oil on linen, 31x21cm

Neale Worley

Beautiful and classical work by ​Neale Worley. Although his daughter looks a lot older than 5, she has a fabulous presence. The piece has an air of art history over it, although there is nothing in particular that points to it. The paint work doesn't die when looked at in close up and keeps it cohesion and interest. Lovely balance between realism and painterliness.

Neale Worley, Ilea, oil on canvas, 106x50cm

Samantha Fellows

I can't help but smile when I see this small portrait (Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen) by Samantha Fellows. The painting is modest, small and doesn't shout through dramatic light or composition. It is friendly, recognisable and lovely. 

Samantha Fellows, Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen, oil on panel, 40x40cm

Zack Zdrale

This small piece by Zack Zdrale is very impressive; the strong lighting and intense gaze of the sitter cannot help but catch your attention. The brush work is absolutely wonderful; it is alive, vibrant and moves with the sitter's face. The strong lighting is not so exaggerated that it is overly dramatised, yet her eyes tell us a story of much more going on than we might guess.

Zack Zdrale, Sister, oil on panel, 30x30cm

Miguel Angel Moya

I love the still and quiet darkness of this painting by Miguel Angel Moya, which again does not create an unnecessarily dramatic scene but makes us focus on the scientist at work at his desk. The composition is beautifully simple, with large areas of floor, desk and background left plain. The depiction of the scientist and the desk, and all the little objects on the desk are painted into beautiful minute detail, yet it all has a slight grainy fuzziness to it, which gives it a particular character.  

Miguel Angel Moya, The Biologist, oil on linen, 114x86cm

Alastair Adams

Alastair Adams’ works feature annually at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (see here for this year's exhibition review), of which Adams is a member and past president. His work is consistently good, so consistently I would almost take it for granted. But now and then one gets reminded how fabulously good he is and this piece is no exception. I love the textures (skin, velvet chair, hair, shirt) and the pattern galore that covers every inch of the painting. The sitter looks at us with an expression I cannot quite place; is it sadness, defiance? A wonderful painting with loads to study and learn from.

Alastair Adams,  Bruce Robinson, Writer and Director, oil on board, 92x75cm

Bernardo Siciliano

This was the one portrait that stopped me in my tracks. The painting has enormous presence and gravity. It was painted by Bernardo Siciliano. The paint application (quite angular and painterly) actually serves the earthiness of the work, its weight, body and presence. Very often brush marks are left as some sort of decorative trick; the artist is hoping it will add something to the painting. But here Siciliano made it part and parcel of the whole package. The muted colours also add to its weightiness. The nudes (we are seeing an art tutor in a life drawing class) rise above the shallow sensuality of young bodies so often seen in art, and gain a more universal quality.  I have no idea what this portrait says of the sitter; but I don't really care, because the work is very impressive as a 'painting'.

Bernardo Siciliano, Vincent Desiderio, oil on canvas, 144x109cm

Other works I liked were by Fergusson, Freeman, Glynn-Jones, and Tweehuysen (hey a Dutch guy! Goed gedaan!). 

Siciliano's work (and the man with the straw hat again!)

Travel Award

I have already mentioned my disappointment to find the BP Travel Award paintings delegated to another exhibition space with no mention of it within the main gallery at all. I therefore missed seeing the works by Casper White. He won the award last year and was subsequently sent on his way with the travel grant to paint portraits of young people in the club and gig scene of Europe. It is an original idea which we don't generally see in art. The club scene of places like Berlin and Mallorca no doubt is huge and influential. I have never been much of a clubber (it was more the Amsterdam 'brown pubs' for me in my student days) but I can appreciate the huge amount of source material and motivation to record this (sub) culture in a creative way. I like White's painterly style and his searching for a way to express what he found. His paintings are beautiful and evocative. There is a real sense of presence of the young people depicted, which I love. 

More on Casper White's website

If anyone wants to go and see the display then take the stairs up right next to the entrance to the BP Portrait Award exhibition and you will find them on the half landing.

This year the Travel Award was won by German artist Robert Seidel, who proposes to travel along the river Danube (which flows through no less than 10 countries) and paint the faces he meets along the way. That should be a promising, and thoroughly European adventure which I very much look forward to seeing.  

Casper White’s Travel Award works at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Casper White, This is Now (Dan), oil on zinc

BP Portrait Award 2018
National Portrait Gallery
14 June - 23 September
Admission free

The exhibition will then tour to:

Wolverhampton Art Gallery
13 October – 30 November, 2018

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
15 December 2018 – 10 March, 2019

Winchester Discovery Centre
Mid-March and Mid-June, 2019 (exact dates tbc)

Book Shop

Published: August 14, 2018

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