Royal Society of Portrait Painters 2019 exhibition at Mall Galleries
By James Brewer
Portrait painters are storytellers. Whatever their chosen medium, whether pastel or pencil or thickly layered oil paint, their narratives are usually as rich and confident as their textures.
Thus it is with the 2019 annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. The Mall Galleries celebrates what it calls “the very best in contemporary portraiture nationally and internationally… with some 200 works, this is one of the world’s most extensive contemporary portrait exhibitions.”
A prime reason for its success is that, as the Society says, “unlike other portrait exhibitions, it is rigorously selected by professional portrait painters who themselves have been elected by their peers to the Society.”
What the awards judges were looking for is described by one of them as the way the participants handle light, feeling and natural expression. Face to face with the entries, one understands what the adjudicators are getting at.
Most entries are oil paintings – compared with what is available in materials these days it sometimes does not make much difference with acrylics – and there are some pastels. Many of the sitters are academics, and there is a Downton Abbey aura to some of the essays.
What variety, though: for instance, there are politicians and more appealingly, an art student’s memorable Cypriot peasant girl, and a more established practitioner’s teenage member of the North American Christian group the Amish community, who follow a 19th century way of life. There are portraits… and what might be called un-portraits of reluctant sitters.
Some entries have a remarkable photographic quality, but all make us look anew at our fellow human beings. There is grand, and there is minor, portraiture, but size is guide to excellence. A slice of the breadth of humanity, here are beauty, poise, sagacity and sometimes bodies sagging with age. Mostly these are not randomly encountered strangers and reveal almost as much about the artist as his or her subjects.
Aristocratic bearing has attracted London- and Gloucestershire-based Phoebe Dickinson in her oil painting of Rose of Houghton Hall. This has won the Burke’s Peerage Foundation award for classically inspired portraiture; and is highly commended in the de Laszlo Foundation Award. Elegance is stamped all over the personality and surroundings of the setting: Rose is a former fashion model married to 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley one of whose family seats is Houghton Hall in Norfolk.
This is familiar ground for Phoebe. Her portrait of the Cholmondeley children at the hall was chosen for the BP Portrait award 2018 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
Attention to minute detail characterises Mark Roscoe’s majestic oil depiction of Dame Elish Frances Angiolini DBE PC QC. She is cradling a floral-patterned mug of beverage, but no-one would be surprised to learn from this faithful delineation that Dame Elish is principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and chancellor of the West of Scotland University, following her earlier career in Scottish law.
Mark studied fine art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art where he achieved a BA (Hons) Degree. His Self Portrait was used to advertise the 1998 BP Portrait Award which helped to establish his reputation. He won the 2013 Royal Society of Portrait Painters Ondaatje Award for the most distinguished portrait.
Robbie Wraith has an extensive cv but he needed to deploy scant resources to win the Prince of Wales’s Award for portrait drawing. This is a charming charcoal image, Esther. We see just the girl’s lovely, slightly anxious face framed by her luxuriant locks: “the body is just a suggestion,” as one visitor put it.
Prince Charles, an accomplished artist, knows Robbie’s work well, for more than 40 examples are in his private collection, and others are held by the Queen, the Royal Collection at Windsor, the Vatican, Chatsworth, the National Trust, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Eton College and many more. Distinguished sitters for Robbie have included the Queen, the 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire as commissioned by the prince, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and Nelson Mandela, drawn while accompanying the prince to South Africa.
Other work for the prince has included two series of pictures of the house and gardens at Highgrove and a series of the Royal Yacht Britannia. Robbie left school at 16 – and went to study painting in Florence at the invitation of Pietro Annigoni.
Exciting new-generation talent includes Nefeli Chrysanthou, who is studying at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen. She masters muted tones in her tremendously appealing oil portrayal of a Peasant Girl. Nefeli is proud of her dual heritage of Lithuanian and Cypriot families and seeks out cultural attitudes and contexts. She notes that Greeks and Lithuanians are both very attached to their language. Her passions include cinema and illustration, and she clearly has a great career ahead.
A girl from the Amish community is the unusual subject depicted by Martin Brooks, who is a candidate for membership of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In his oil, a mostly austere monochrome, the only touch of colour apart from faint highlights in the young woman’s pallid cheeks belongs to her headscarf. Given her people’s demure habits, she appears unused to being in the spotlight.
Martin in spring 2017 received an Arts Council award to stay with Amish people in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, working alongside families to chronicle a way of life that has essentially remained unchanged for many years. The first Amish arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1730s fleeing persecution in Europe. They seek to keep themselves separate from other societies, adopting distinct dress, language, work, travel and education.
The artist’s life-size portrait is entitled Gelassenheit (serenity), a German word for tranquil submission used in the Christian mystical tradition. This concept, subjugated to the moral code known as Ordnung, is in Amish life submission to the will of God, consonant with the words of Jesus in the Bible “not my will, but thine be done,” casting out individuality, selfishness, and pride.
Martin trained at the Royal College of Art where he was awarded the Royal College Drawing Prize and Madame Tussauds Prize for Figurative Art. His work has been selected for the BP Portrait Award, and notable portraits have included the theoretical physicist and broadcaster Prof Jim Al-Khalili for the British Humanist Association, and UK singer and songwriter Laura Mvula.
One of many appealing portraits in oils over the years by Anthony Connolly is Miss Hughes. Anthony, who lives in Wiltshire, is a teacher and communicator and has published Portrait Painting by Crowood Press in 2011.
London-based Miriam Escofet presented the appealing Portrait with Chinoiserie wallpaper. Her website says: “My work is classically inspired and the journey to a painting can be very multi-disciplinary, often involving the construction of props, dioramas or elaborate maquettes, and the use of complex perspective… My technique is extremely detailed, applying many layers and glazes to achieve a sense of space and mood.” She won the BP Portrait Award 2018.
Chinese artist Jie Cai has an almost surreal, photographic style celebrating childhood as shown in an oil entitled Floating Life no 2. It is shampoo time and every detail, suds and all, are immaculate.
Toby Wiggins took up his pencil and charcoal to sketch Richard Adams… you feel that his subject is someone you know for his worldliness and wisdom.
In an interview, Toby offered us a fascinating insight into his approach in the drawing, which is a preliminary to a painting on which he is working.
Richard Morgan is someone who has been painted by several members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters over the years and Toby was introduced to him by fellow RP member Emma Wesley. “Richard has a very fine face to work from,” says Toby, “and with each artist, something different is exposed; some different aspect of his psychology seems to surface.
For me, Richard first appeared hawk-like and angular. He is a slender and alert figure with piercing blue eyes and when in repose, his face does seem slightly stern, belying his kind and much more gentle character.
“He is, however, someone with a sharp intellect who doesn’t suffer fools. As a relationship evolves over numerous sittings, certain insights into character and personality begin to affect how one sees the shape of a person’s face, what you notice and indeed how the portrait evolves.
“I often work on a fairly small scale these days and with Richard, I had the freedom to do something different and make a conscious decision to go larger, which inevitably gives any portrait image a monumentality.”
Toby shared with us one of his chief stylistic influences in this new work. “There is a painting, not monumental in scale, but certainly in its remarkable success – Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Cornelis van der Geest. It lives in the National Gallery and I have often spent time looking at it. The portrait is of a merchant in his sixties, the shape of his skull comes through the skin, a little sallow in places, a little florid in the cheeks. The lips are wet, the eyes glisten. Belonging to a larger canvas once, just the head with its ruff is seen against a dark background.
“It is a truly spellbinding portrait and seems to cut through the years. I can’t deny that I love this painting and when confronted with Richard, a sitter who was a bit similar in both age and appearance, van der Geest came to mind.”
The drawing of Richard Morgan was completed over a series of three-hour sittings and “while I am fairly pleased with it as a working drawing, I feel that it suggests a heavier, harsher figure than he is in reality.
“It certainly offers one aspect of how he can look and perhaps is, but when it comes to the painting that I am working on now, I need it to show a more rounded person, to indicate the man I have come to know under the skin, as it were. The drawing has helped me to get through to the painting and it has a good deal of information for the start of the painting, but it is a thing from which to depart, not something that merely gets copied into painterly form.
“I had hoped to show the painting alongside, but time ran out and I will exhibit Richard in oil at next year’s RP show.”
Toby is having a splendid year, including his solo exhibition in the Hellenic Centre from February 12 to March 13 on the theme Mani: painting the Southern Peloponnese: In the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Royal Academy Schools trained, Toby has won awards including the BP Travel Award, the Lynn Painter-Stainer prize for figurative painting and the Prince of Wales drawing award and has taught drawing at the Arts University Bournemouth since 2004. From 2005-15, he continued the tradition of artistic practice in the Dorset studio of his friend and mentor the sculptor Mary Spencer Watson (1913-2006), previously the studio of her father, the painter George Spencer Watson (1869-1934).
His Hellenic Centre show was of 25 works as a tribute to a remote corner of Greece, where he in October 2017 trekked “over mountains and across arid plains to the sound of gun shot in the mornings and howling jackals by night.” He was retracing the 1951 path taken by the famed travel writer Leigh Fermor,
Amid the contemporary displays, on loan from the Watts Gallery in the village of Compton, near Guildford to the Mall Galleries exhibition has been The Dean’s Daughter or Lillie Langtree. George Frederic Watts (1807-1904), considered by some to be the greatest painter of the Victorian era, invited the actress Lillie to sit for him in the autumn of 1879, when she was at the height of her fame. He became good friends with Lillie (who had an affair with the then Prince of Wales) and says the Watts Gallery probably never intended to sell the painting, which remained in his private collection until his death.
Royal Society of Portrait Painters 2019 annual exhibition is at the Mall Galleries, London SW1, until May 24. Admission £4, Free to Friends of Mall Galleries and under 18s.