Judge Corinne Miller tells Alison Jones why the genre is booming.
“I don’t think she is necessarily engaging with the viewer of the picture and, in a sense, it seems very self contained. It also indicates a personality, a real personality and not a glossy surface image.
“I think what is also interesting about the portrait is it is absolutely massive,”
Corinne Miller’s praise is for the portrait declared the winner of the BP Portrait Award 2008, on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery as part of an exhibition of the 55 best paintings in the competition – now considered the most prestigious of its kind in the world.
London based artist Craig Wylie, 35, took the top prize of £25,000 and a commission, at the National Portrait Gallery Trustees’ discretion, worth £4,000 for his oil on canvas painting K, a study of his girlfriend Katherine Raw. This is the first time he has been shortlisted having been included in the award exhibition for the last three years.
Craig said of the portrait, which measures 82⅝ inches by 65 inches, “On one level the viewer’s intrusion into the sitter’s emotional state is tacitly accepted, on another it is positively rebuffed.”
Corinne, who is the Head of Wolverhampton Arts and Museums, was invited to be one of the judges for the awards, which attracted 1,721 entries from across the globe.
“I have always been a fan of this award, it really gives you a snapshot of what is happening in portraiture at the present moment and I think because you get an international submission it is fascinating.
“They always have a good essay in their (exhibition) catalogue. It is Alexander McCall Smith this time, who writes The No1 Ladies Detective Agency books, and it is a very personal account of his own interest in collecting portraits.”
The second prize of £8,000 went to Offenham-based artist Simon Davis for Portrait of Amanda Smith at Vincent Avenue and the third prize of £6,000 to Robert O’Brien for the painting of his late grandmother Hannah O’Brien.
“In the catalogue Craig’s picture is on the page next to Robert O’Brien’s portrait and they look roughly the same sort of size,” says Corinne. “but actually Hannah O’Brien is tiny (300 x 200mm) whereas Craig’s is monumental.
“There were quite a few large works in this exhibition and I think it is the artists’ preference the scale in which they chose to work. The larger ones have a very immediate impact whereas with the smaller works really draw you in to look more closely because you can’t necessarily read them quickly.”
The show at Wolverhampton (which runs until November 15) will be its only stop in England outside of London, before the exhibition moves on to Aberdeen and then Aberystwyth.
The gallery has a series of events supporting it, including Approaches to the Portrait on October 2, where painter and art interpreter Adrian Clamp focuses on the working methods, observation and the mechanical processes of the artists. On October 4, children will get a chance to take part in Smiley Faces, creating masks inspired by the portraits on display.
Corinne admits she was intrigued to compare contemporary portraiture with the older works in the gallery’s collection.
“I was amazed at the variety I thought there would be more of what I would consider to be more formal portraits but there was a huge variety of interpretations. I see portraiture in its historic context so I am interested in narrative portraits, where you get people sitting before an array of items or interiors that actually reflect something about them.
“We have portraits at Wolverhampton from the 18th century where people are standing in front of very fine interiors. What is lovely is seeing those interiors translated into the 21st century. My Mother-in-law, Anne, and her sister, Auntie Audrey by Tony Noble, for example, has got this very ordinary domestic interior. It allows you to have a point of access to the image itself when it so very clearly relates to your own life experience and I think it is fascinating what people pick out to include.
She believes the number of entries and quality of them indicates that portraiture is in a very healthy state.
“You do find people trying to capture the essence of human existence. When I have been looking at amateur exhibitions, or even professional exhibitions, you always get people who are grappling with that issue of trying to represent the human form and imbue it with meaning.
* For information about the awards look up wolverhamptonart.org.uk or ring 01902 552 055
Image and text by The Birmingham Post