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June 19 2012

US artist wins £25,000 BP Portrait prize with painting of 'Auntie'

Aleah Chapin beats record entry of more than 2,100 entries from 74 countries with portrait of family friend

A tender portrait of a family friend, a woman affectionately known as Auntie and trusting enough to pose for a larger-than-lifesize painting that exposes every sag and crease, has won the £25,000 BP Portrait prize for the 26-year-old American artist Aleah Chapin.

The competition is now open to any artist aged over 18, and Chapin beat a record entry of more than 2,100 entries from 74 countries, including almost 1,500 submissions from the UK. She will also win a £4,000 commission to make a work for the gallery's collection.

Auntie is one of a series of portraits of unrelated women Chapin has known all her life, whom she gathered for a group photo session on an island off Seattle, where she was born, though she is now based in New York.

The artist said: "The fact that she has known me since birth is extremely important. Her body is a map of her journey through life. In her I see the personification of strength through an unguarded and accepting presence."

Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, described the work as "ambitious and beautifully painted, with superbly controlled colour and tone. She is a very deserving winner of the 2012 BP Award, which once again demonstrates the vitality of contemporary portrait painting around the world."

The second prize went a Spanish artist Ignacio Estudillo, who lives and works in Córdoba, for a monochrome portrait of his grandfather.

Third prize went to a largely self-taught London-based artist, Alan Coulson, who has twice before made the portrait award exhibition, for a portrait of a friend and fellow artist, Richie Culver, displaying his opulently tattooed arms in a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

Chapin would also have been eligible for the young artist award for artists under 30: it went to Jamie Routley, born in 1982, for a triple portrait of Tony Lewis, a well known figure to many Londoner commuters from his newspaper stand at Baron's Court tube station.

The travel prize went to Carl Randall, from his proposal to follow in the footsteps of the 19th century printmaker Ando Hiroshige, creating portraits of local people reflecting life in modern Japan.

The exhibition of a selection of 55 works, including the winners, opens at the gallery in London this week, and will then tour to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this winter, and then the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter in spring .

• BP Portrait Award, free at the National Portrait Gallery June 21 - September 23


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June 08 2012

Jane Austen: A portrait of the artist as a young girl?

Analysis points to painting being Jane Austen at 13 and no other professional likeness of the novelist exists

New evidence may have revealed the true face of one of Britain's most beloved authors. Using digital photographic tools analysis has revealed writing on a long-disputed oil painting that its owners claim shows Jane Austen as a teenage girl. No other professional likeness of the writer exists.

The discovered words appear to include not only the novelist's name, but also that of the suspected artist.

In the top-right corner of a reproduction of a photograph of the portrait taken before the painting was restored, the name Jane Austen is visible. Next to it is revealed in two places the name Ozias Humphry – an established portrait painter of the period. He was a member of the Royal Academy, and a friend of other better-known artists of the day, such as Gainsborough and Romney.

The words have been digitally enhanced using photographic tools and methods that have been independently validated by photographic expert Stephen Cole of Acume Forensics in Leeds, who has spent more than 20 years analysing photographic evidence in criminal cases.

Art critic Angus Stewart, a former curator of an exhibition dedicated to Jane Austen, has seen the evidence and is impressed. "To have all these words revealed on the canvas is very, very strong. I think you'd be flying in the face of reason to deny this," he said.

The painting, owned by the Rice family, direct descendants of one of Jane's brothers, has been the subject of debate almost since it came to public light in the late 19th century. The Rices say it was composed during an Austen family visit to the house of Jane's great uncle Francis, in Kent in 1789, when Jane was 13. According to the recorded family history, having commissioned the portrait Francis kept it in Sevenoaks with the rest of his family collection. It was then given by his grandson, Colonel Thomas Austen, to a close friend as a wedding present, the year after the author died in 1817, because the bride was reported to be a keen admirer of Austen's books.

However, since the 1940s art experts, led by the National Portrait Gallery, have raised objections, principally that the style of the girl's dress and the general composition date the painting after 1800. By then, Jane Austen would have been in her 20s, too old to be the girl depicted. But the new evidence also provides important clues that could contradict the established view. The digital analysis has been conducted on a photograph of the canvas dating back to 1910 when the photographer Emery Walker was hired to reproduce the image for a collection of Jane Austen's letters. The original glass plates have since been stored in the National Portrait Gallery's own reference library, and have only now been digitally reproduced.

Since 1910 the painting has undergone successive restorations which may have erased crucial clues on the surface, so this black-and-white photograph may contain evidence lost on the original.

Francis Austen was a patron of Humphry's work, and had himself sat for a portrait by the artist. Crucially, Humphry also became blind in 1797 and stopped painting – so this attribution would date the picture before then. Intriguingly the enhancements also seem to reveal the date 1789, at which time Jane Austen was 13, the right age to be the girl in the painting.

It's not possible to know whether any of this writing was placed on the canvas by Humphry himself or a later owner. But as the painting was believed to be by a better known and more prestigious artist, Johann Zoffany, it seems to experts overwhelmingly likely that the words must have been put there during or shortly after Jane's lifetime. Professor Claudia Johnson of Princeton University believes the new evidence trumps the historical objections: "Whether Humphry's name was signed by himself in the 18th century and/or by some other hand later, the attribution must be contemporaneous with Austen's lifetime or by people who knew Austen when she was alive," she said.

A definitive attribution of the portrait as Austen may represent something of an embarrassment to the National Portrait Gallery, which granted the picture a licence for sale abroad on the basis that it could not be the writer. The gallery chose not to comment.

Thanks to the scholarly doubt, the picture failed to reach a £350,000 reserve price at auction in 2007. But now the Rice family can perhaps expect a much higher sale price.

Face of a writer

For most readers seeking to picture the author of Pride and Prejudice, the face of Jane Austen is a watercolour painted by her sister Cassandra in 1810, right, although the authenticity of the sketch has remained contested. The picture, which was adapted for the front cover of her 1870 biography by artist James Andrews, has been described by Austen scholar Paula Byrne as "very Victorian, sentimentalised and saccharine".

Last year, Byrne came forward with what she claimed is a previously unseen portrait of the writer, which depicts her seated at a table with a pen in hand and with a face rather longer than the round one familar to many owners of Austen novels.

Some Austen experts who agreed that the "new" image was authentic, presenting a professional woman writer at the height of her creative powers, said they believed it dated to around 1815, two years before her death. But there was scepticism from other quarters, where it was pointed out that the timing of the "discovery" came ahead of a new book by Byrne.

In terms of popular culture's portrayal of Austen, the best known recent depiction of her has been Becoming Jane, a speculative biopic of Jane Austen's love life in which she was played by the US actor Anne Hathaway. Reviewing the film in 2007, the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw concluded that Hathaway gave a decent account of herself "although she's far too pretty in the role".

Other depictions of Austen have included a comic inspired by the recent trend for "paranormal" mash-ups of her books. No longer able to rest in peace due to the proliferation of titles such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the author rises from the dead intent on destroying the "abominations". Ben Quinn


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May 08 2012

Effigy of 'Lost Prince' Henry Stuart to go on show at National Portrait Gallery

Funeral effigy of 18-year-old prince forms part of exhibition of objects associated with the almost forgotten son of James I

A bundle of old sticks, which frankly will look very odd exhibited among treasures of paintings, miniatures, manuscripts and armour by artists including Rubens, Holbein and Inigo Jones, is all that remains of a funeral effigy that 400 years ago reduced crowds lining the streets of London to "an ocean of tears".

The National Portrait Gallery is preparing to stage the first exhibition anywhere on one of British history's great what ifs – what if Henry, the now almost forgotten handsome, sporty, clever – and devoutly Protestant – son of James I, big brother of the feeble and sickly Charles, had not died of typhoid in 1612 aged just 18.

Would he have reigned in peace and prosperity and had a brood of healthy children, or would he too have plunged his country into civil war and lost his head on a scaffold in Whitehall?

For curator Catharine MacLeod, the ugliest and most battered object in the autumn exhibition will also be one of the most striking. The headless, armless, wooden torso once completed with a wax portrait head modelled from life, and dressed in the prince's own magnificent robes, is being loaned by Westminster Abbey, where it has not been exhibited for at least 200 years.

"I find it very poignant, a tremendously moving symbol of the decline into which his memory has fallen," she said.

In 1612, the effigy laid on top of his coffin was so lifelike it had a devastating impact on viewers. A witness described "an innumerable multitude of all sorts of ages and degrees of men, women and children … some weeping, crying, howling, wringing of their hands, others halfe dead … passionately betraying so great a losse with rivers, nay with an ocean of teares."

The wonderful clothes were stolen within a few years, the head was gone by the early 19th century, and the arms, probably originally sacking stuffed with straw, have long since rotted away.

It will be shown among more conventionally splendid objects, including loans from the royal collection and museum and private collections, including a spectacular suit of armour, and designs for a court masque by Inigo Jones in which the handsome youth appeared as the fairy king Oberon.

Trinity College Cambridge is sending his copy book, showing one page of beautifully transcribed Latin poetry and one of touchingly teenage doodles, squiggles, and trial signatures.

At the age of 16 he was already building up a spectacular art collection, including the superb Holbein drawings now among the most precious works in the Windsor Castle library. He was also so interested in shipbuilding that Sir Walter Raleigh, imprisoned in the tower, wrote him a treatise on the subject.

His death also sealed the fate of his younger brother Charles, so feeble and sickly he was left behind in Scotland for years when his father became king on the death of Elizabeth I and moved south with his family.

The Royal Collection is loaning a small bronze horse, a sculpture dating from 1600 by Pietro Tacco, which both princes obviously regarded as a particular treasure. When Henry lay on his deathbed, the 12-year-old Charles sent for the horse and gave it to his brother hoping it would cheer him up - but it was too late.

Charles was chief mourner at the funeral, which his father could not bear to attend. Months later, in the middle of a conversation with diplomats, the king suddenly collapsed, sobbing: "Henry is dead, Henry is dead."

• The Lost Prince: the life and death of Henry Stuart, National Portrait Gallery. London, October 2012-January 2013


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April 16 2012

Faces of the 60s: Peter Rand – in pictures

Ten of Peter Rand's previously unexhibited photographs of leading figures from the 1960s are going on display. See the images of Harold Pinter, Dusty Springfield and Richard Branson first here



February 05 2012

Lucian Freud Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery's tremendous show celebrates the unexpected moments that were ever present in the artist's work

Lucian Freud painted strange, uneasy, figures, from first to last. Maybe they were uneasy because he was painting them. There was as much violence as tenderness in his stare, and in the ways he devised to paint.

This tremendous show tracks Freud's inquisitiveness and inventiveness, his constant returns to the mystery of presence. Almost everything Freud did was a portrait of a situation or a confrontation as much as it was a body in a room, whether the body belonged to a lover, a daughter, the artist's mother, a baron, a bank robber or the Queen.

Freud was 18 in 1940 when he painted his art college tutor Cedric Morris , the earliest work in this large, though far from complete exhibition, planned in close co-operation with the artist himself during the last five years of his life.

Freud's final painting, of his pet dog and his studio assistant David Dawson, was left unfinished on the easel when Freud died last year at 88. Its incompleteness is extremely affecting.

The first of these two paintings is small, querulous and faux-naive (though it is hard to imagine Freud naive at any stage in his life), the last full of eccentric impetuosities: Dawson looks up; Freud's eye circles like a bird of prey, quartering its subject from above. The painting runs the gamut from sketchy indications of what might have been, to revised and much reworked detail. Dawson's head is an encrusted eruption of granular pustules of paint. I churn too, as I look at it.

In his very late works Freud seems to have got fixated on certain details. There is an enormous, disjunctive, variety in Ria, Naked Portrait 2006-7. Ria's head is a coarse impastoed lump, the bedcover a fastidious off-white rumpled plain, its pattern emerging and disappearing. The painting is marvellous and terrible at the same time, both exhilarating and awful. There's frailty and failure as well as richness and complexity there, which makes it all the better.

Through a sequence of larger and smaller rooms, Freud's portraiture is unpacked, in all its variety, from the thinly-painted acuteness of his 1950s work to his affecting, grand and vulnerable portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, and the mountainous and magnificent Sue Tilley (Big Sue, the Benefits Supervisor). Each has a room devoted to them.

Elsewhere, however, earlier, smaller, works are hung too close together. In some rooms there are too many confrontations and painted intimacies to take in. It's going to be tough when the crowds arrive.

Neither a realist nor an expressionist – though there is as much reality as there is expression in his art – Freud depicted the psychological tensions between himself and his subjects. His paintings are full of life. There is always a palpable atmosphere, even if it is often conjured from dead time in the studio, his models' lassitude or alertness, a sense of someone waiting for those interminable sittings at their appointed hours to be over.

Freud almost always found something new, or a new way to describe, the experience of being in a room with someone else. It was usually the same room, with the same bits of furniture and piles of paint-soiled rags.

Details as much as whole paintings arrest me. So many details! The weave of a wicker chair, the paisley pattern on his mother's suit, the halo of light reflected behind a head on a leather seat, the Paddington skyline rippling in the windowpane, iridescent blue nail varnish flickering on a woman's toes.

Freud's paintings always have great and often unexpected moments, things the eye snags on. His was a process of describing sensation and presence, people and things and spaces and light, through the language of painting.

He was continually trying to find new ways to describe the familiar: clasped hands, a man's dangling cock, a cheekbone, a turn of the head. His touch is almost never dutiful or rote.

Freud would steer through a sitter's boredom, their disquiet or their flamboyance or their awkwardness, to find something new in their introspection, their nakedness. His art is wonderfully perverse, and perversity was the method by which it constantly reinvented itself.

Being Sigmund Freud's grandson did not give Lucian any particular insights into his sitters, and he disparaged familial comparisons, but like his grandfather his work was largely concerned with being alone in a room with another, delving into the silence that falls between them, analysing the ongoing situation. This exhibition is unmissable. Go more than once, if you can.

Lucian Freud Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 9 February to 27 May

Rating: 5/5


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January 15 2012

Hockney, Freud, Turner and Hirst: art blockbusters of 2012

As the works go up and the buzz begins, we speak to the movers and shakers about how they got here …

David Hockney: Royal Academy

It's an Olympic year for artists too, and first out of the blocks is David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Like the athletes competing in London this summer, Hockney – now a veteran at 74 – has spent the past four years pushing himself beyond his limits in preparation for what could be the defining test of his career. The result is one of the most ambitious shows in the Academy's 244-year history: more than 150 works, some of them gargantuan, more than 80% of which have been made specially for this exhibition and the particular spaces of this light-filled gallery.

For Edith Devaney, co-curator of the exhibition, the most invigorating part of the process has been watching the new paintings emerge first-hand. "Like David, we didn't know what to expect, but we knew it would be exciting," she says. "I remember him saying to me when we started off this process, 'We won't get this wrong.' And I thought, 'No, we won't.'"

Hockney has always dabbled in landscapes – notably his photo collages of the Grand Canyon and Pearblossom Highway in the 1980s and 90s when he was still in the States – but they have been a sustained focus of his work since he returned to live in Bridlington, East Yorkshire a decade ago. In recent years he has produced paintings at a complusive rate, first with watercolours then oils, and most recently on his iPhone and iPad. "David's not actually that interested in technology, he's just interested in other methods you can use to make art," she explains. "The work he did on his iPhone is charming, but the work he does on his iPad has the painterly quality of his oils – it's astonishing."

Another new direction for Hockney is his use of film. Showing as a world exclusive at the Royal Academy his films are created by nine high-definition cameras pointing in fractionally different directions – the result has been described as a "moving cubist collage".

"It has the same multiplicity of perspectives," says Devaney. "When you look at this film you feel as though you are seeing the world through David Hockney's eyes."

With Hockney's canny knack for self-promotion – he recently declined to paint the Queen because he was "very busy painting England actually, her country" – marketing expectations for the show are off the scale. As a private and independent institution, the Royal Academy is not obliged to supply a projected attendance, but there are whispers that A Bigger Picture could challenge the 1999 Monet exhibition, which hosted 813,000 visitors. Demand was so relentless back then that the Academy opened its doors 24 hours a day, a UK first. "In principle we'd do that again," says Jennifer Francis, head of press and marketing. "Certainly in the final few weeks, if we think people will be there at three in the morning."

Advertising for the show will have local, national and international targets – from buses in Bradford to the LA tourist board. "It's the first time I've bought space on buses up and down the country," says Francis. "There is a massive buzz about this exhibition."

"I really sense the position of this exhibition in history," interjects Devaney. "It's a slight change of direction for us: we are picking someone like David, who is at the height of his powers, and giving him freedom. Working very closely with him, but allowing him to take off. In 100 years' time people at the Academy will look back and think, 'Oh my God, this was a really important thing for the Academy to have done.'"

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy, London W1, 21 January-9 April

Lucian Freud: Portraits

The cynical among us might wonder if the National Portrait Gallery's auspicious Lucian Freud: Portraits exhibition was hastily conceived in the aftermath of the artist's death last July. We would, however, be missing the mark by, ooh, about five years. "The idea came to me in 2007, just after we won the Olympic bid," says the National Portrait Gallery's contemporary curator Sarah Howgate. "Everybody felt it would be a fantastic exhibition to do in 2012, when Lucian was going to turn 90. Our director, Sandy Nairne, told him, 'You are going to be our Olympian,' which Lucian found quite amusing."

Howgate can also measure the complicated gestation of the show in another way. "I started writing to lenders in 2008 to request his work and then I went off on maternity leave," she recalls. "Now my little boy is three and the exhibition is just about to start!"

There are 132 works in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the largest exhibition of his portraiture that has ever been assembled. Howgate secured almost all of the key paintings that she requested from museums and private collections, including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, bought in 2008 by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich for £17m, a world record auction price. Other coups include one of Freud's grandest works, Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau), not seen in the UK for a decade, and Portrait of the Hound, his final, unfinished painting.

"It's a balancing act for lenders," says Howgate. "Works, which quite often hang on their walls, have to come down for a year and that creates quite a gap. But on the other hand their work is going to be hanging in this really important exhibition in a great venue, so it's prestigious to be part of it. And it's happening at a time when the world's attention is going to be on the UK and London in particular."

The NPG is anticipating around 160,000 visitors, which would match the number that came to see David Hockney Portraits: Life Love Art in 2006 (also curated by Howgate), their record for a paid-admittance show. Denise Vogelsang, head of marketing, advises booking in advance and coming in the morning; an "early-bird offer", for example, gives you two-for-one tickets for the first slot of the day. "But the show takes over pretty much the whole of the ground floor," says Vogelsang, "so it's a bigger space than we normally have and we can accommodate a larger number of visitors without it feeling too crowded."

Howgate is adamant that Lucian Freud: Portraits be viewed as "a celebration, not a memorial", and she points out that the artist had seen and approved the paintings that are being shown, even the layout of the exhibition and the merchandise. Nevertheless, it will be almost impossible to view the show, which spans 1939 to 2011, without speculating on Freud's colourful personal life. His two wives and assorted lovers are prominently featured, and it sometimes feels that you can see relationships deteriorating over the course of their sittings.

It will also be hard not to consider Freud's legacy as you wander round. "It's just really sad that Lucian isn't going to see it because he would have been incredibly moved by it," says Howgate. "Obviously his family are all going to come, so it's going to be an emotional time for them and that is going to make it all the more powerful. There was a feeling in the art world that a real master had died, and I think it will become even more clear that we have lost one of the greatest realist painters of the 20th century."

Lucian Freud: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 9 February-27 May

JMW Turner: National Gallery

The venerable National Gallery was just five years old in 1829 when JMW Turner wrote a will leaving his entire oeuvre – more than 1,000 works – to the nation. The artist had just one stipulation: when he died, he wanted a pair of his own paintings (Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising Through Vapour) hung between two landscapes (what he called The Seaport and The Mill) by a baroque artist who had inspired him more than any other, Claude Lorrain. The request is still honoured to this day, in the cosy, octagonal room 15, but in March the National Gallery is preparing a much grander statement of the affinity between the two masters.

Turner will be the draw for most visitors but Jill Preston, the National Gallery's head of communications, believes that Claude's mastery of light and composition will be a revelation. "We're hoping that a lot of people out there will, through the Turner name, be introduced to Claude for the first time," she says. "Outside the art world a lot of people who are not familiar with Claude will find his work absolutely delightful, really inspiring."

Turner was formally introduced to the work of Claude, who died almost a century before he was born, when two of his landscapes came through London in 1799. These paintings, along with Turner's sketches of them, open the exhibition. "They really caused a splash those two Claudes, they were what everybody was talking about," says Susan Foister, deputy director of the National Gallery. "The sketchbooks record Turner's reactions to these works and he refers to them again and again throughout his career because it's material he can keep reusing but making different each time. This room really sets the scene for their relationship."
Turner Inspired: In Light of Claude might seem the most traditional of the big 2012 shows, but the National Gallery believes it has much to intrigue enthusiasts of Hockney, Freud, even Hirst. "Our show "is about looking backwards and forwards at the same time," she says. "Turner saw that you could look at a work painted decades earlier and make something very different of it. That's what artists go on doing and I think that's what Turner was showing he could do with Claude."

Preston is determined to spread the word that the gallery is becoming more rounded, less stuffy even. The programme for 2012 includes a show where contemporary artists, dancers and poets respond to three works by Titian. Friday Lates, where the collection and shows stay open till 9pm, offers live music, debates and a roomful of people sat cross-legged with pencils and paper doing a Talk and Draw session. "We would like the process of discovering an exhibition to be an active one," she says.

"Five million people come to the National Gallery each year so variety is very important."

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is at the National Gallery, London WC2, 14 March-5 June

Damien Hirst: Tate Modern

Everyone in the art world agrees: the factor that has by far the biggest impact on the success of an exhibition is the fame of the artist. This is probably why Marc Sands, director of Tate media and audiences, can't help smiling broadly as he talks about Damien Hirst's first UK retrospective, opening at the Tate Modern in April. "It will be the most talked-about show of the year," he predicts. "The name recognition couldn't be much higher. I've never met more people with a view on an artist. Largely it tends to be more on the artist, whom they have probably never met, than it is on the work that many of them have never seen."

The 46-year-old Hirst will always polarise opinion, Sands concedes, but he hopes visitors can suspend judgment until they see the work, dating from 1988 to the present day. "The divisive nature will only make the discussion, the debate, the interest more prickly and more alive," he says. "I already know what some newspapers will say, but the public should decide for themselves."

For the curator, Ann Gallagher, Tate's head of collections, the exhibition started with a single work: the 14ft tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde or, if you prefer, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living from 1991. "For obvious reasons, it's a piece that everyone would want to see," she says.

Most of Hirst's most notorious pieces will also be among the 70-odd works: there are spot and spin paintings, medicine cabinets and the £50m platinum and diamond skull, For The Love Of God, will be displayed in the Turbine Hall for the first 12 weeks. There's also a room devoted to the works he sold for £111m at Sotheby's in September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers disintegrated. But Gallagher is keen to draw attention to lesser-known exhibits. She is particularly excited by the reconstitution of 1991's In And Out Of Love, which fills two rooms with hundreds of tropical butterflies, some of which are spawned from canvases on the wall.

There is no room in the exhibition for Hirst's recent, little-appreciated skull paintings, but there will be at least one new piece. Gallagher, however, remains tight-lipped as to what form it might take. "You have to leave something as a surprise." There has already been controversy earlier this month with reports – subsequently denied – that David Hockney had criticised Hirst for his over-reliance of assistants. For the Tate, he has been a model collaborator: "Damien's very involved, he's very busy, but he has a good team," says Gallagher. Sands has found him "hands-on, but with an incredibly light touch".

Any rivalry between Hockney and Hirst is likely to be settled after the summer by visitor figures. Sands is quietly confident. "If you come to London as a tourist, you're likely to go to Buckingham Palace, Tate Modern, the British Museum and Camden market," he says, "not necessarily in that order." Gallagher has a much simpler ambition: "I'd like people to come and actually look at Damien Hirst's work," she says. "Whatever they may have heard about him previously, just look at the work."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 4 April-9 September


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December 19 2011

Galleries renew £10m BP deal despite environmental protests

The British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and Tate have renewed BP sponsorship deals

Four of the UK's biggest cultural organisations – the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate – have announced they are to renew sponsorship deals with BP worth £10m despite opposition from environmental campaigners.

The institutions have faced repeated protests in recent years for taking money from the oil giant. The leaders of all four gathered together in a show of solidarity and said the sponsorship would continue until 2017.

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said there were protests every year at its BP-sponsored portrait prize. He said: "We absolutely respect the right of those who wish to protest and we would always think about any sponsorship very carefully." But he said BP's support over the years had been "extraordinary" and there had been "unanimous clarity" among the gallery's board of trustees in agreeing to renew the deal.

The Tate director, Nicholas Serota, said his organisation had thought very hard about the sponsorship and had looked at it again in 2010 and this year. "The board has thought very carefully about this and decided it was the right thing to do to continue with BP, who have been great supporters of the arts," he said.

Protests against BP's involvement intensified after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but Serota said: "The fact that they have one major incident in 2010 does not mean we should not take support from them."

BP's sponsorship of the arts has been longstanding and substantial and it said the future £10m over five years would be roughly equally divided between the four organisations.

Tate Britain has also been the target of protests including one outside its summer party last year, when protesters poured oil and feathers on the pavement. BP's support for its British art displays, which will undergo a major rehang in 2013, will continue.

At the Royal Opera House, BP will continue to support the Big Screen live relays of opera and ballet from Covent Garden to sites around the country. And at the British Museum BP has sponsored exhibitions such as Italian Renaissance Drawings and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and will continue to give support over the next five years including sponsorship of a Vikings show in 2014.

The culture minister, Ed Vaizey, said: "BP's renewed commitment to four of Britain's great cultural institutions is extremely welcome. This is a significant investment, with £10m going directly towards staging world-class exhibitions and performances. For more than 20 years BP has led the way in business support for the arts and I am delighted that this will continue over the next five years."

Kevin Smith, of the art campaign group Platform, said: "By aligning themselves with BP, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate Britain are legitimising the devastation of indigenous communities in Canada through tar sands extraction, the expansion of dangerous oil drilling in the Arctic, and the reckless business practices that lead to the deaths of 11 oil workers on the Deepwater Horizon. BP's involvement with these institutions represents a serious stain on the UK's cultural patrimony."

BP's managing director, Iain Conn, said the company felt it important "that we make a meaningful contribution to society here in the UK. Our work with these partner institutions is a major part of this – enabling people around the country and the world to connect through the experience of outstanding exhibitions and performances, promoting ideas and encouraging creativity."


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November 30 2011

From Rabbie to Rubens

To celebrate 10 years of free museum entry, Chris Smith, the politician who ended charging, introduces the big name curators and gallery-goers we asked to pick their favourite work. But what is yours? Have your say below

I remember, as a student, being very struck by a poster arguing against an attempt by Edward Heath's government to bring in museum charges. It said: "We the undersigned oppose the introduction of admission charges" and carried the signatures of Van Gogh, Titian, Turner and some 50 other great artists. It made me realise a simple truth: that free admission is all about giving everyone, no matter what their means, the chance to see the greatest works of art, science and history that our nation has.

Over the following three decades, charges were indeed brought in. Some national collections valiantly held out against the tide; but most succumbed to charging, and in some cases the charges were high. To bring a family to the Science Museum or Natural History Museum became a substantial financial undertaking.

When I became Secretary of State in 1997, I was determined to change this. I believed passionately that these great treasure houses belonged to us all, and should be available for free, for ever. It took me four years to achieve that: convincing reluctant colleagues; securing additional funding; persuading some museum directors; achieving the removal of VAT. It was worth it, though; and the surge in visitor numbers – up by 150% over the last decade – has proved it.

On the day free admission began, 10 years ago, I was invited to cut the ribbon and throw open the doors at the Science Museum. About half an hour later, I was standing in the foyer, and a man approached me, carrying his daughter on his shoulders. He looked up at her and said, "I want you to say thank you to this man. It's because of him we're able to be here today." That, too, made it worth it. Chris Smith

Nicholas Serota, director, Tate

One of the great atrocities of the Spanish civil war was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German air force, lending their support to the Nationalist forces of General Franco. Picasso responded to the massacre by painting the vast mural Guernica, and for months afterwards made subsidiary paintings based on one of the figures in the mural: a weeping woman holding her dead child. Weeping Woman in Tate's collection is the last and most elaborate of the series. A portrait of Picasso's mistress, Dora Maar, the painting is an extraordinary depiction of female grief and a metaphor for a Spanish tragedy.

The Sir John Soane's Museum is one of my favourite small museums. The eight paintings in William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress series can rightly be described as one of the great masterpieces of British art. Created by Hogarth, the great 18th-century painter, engraver and satirist, they give us an acute glimpse into London life of the period, and the antics of its faded aristocracy and nouveau riche. The paintings were originally hung at Soane's country villa, but were moved back to Lincoln's Inn Fields (now the Soane museum) in 1810. They were hung in a new picture room at the rear of the house, where they remain today.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster

If they start charging for museums I will go spare with rage; it's been a great leap forward. The Cholmondeley Ladies (1600-10) at Tate Britain is one of my favourites to drop in and see. I take the grandchildren to visit them all the time. Everyone can relate to it: they're like reassuring family friends – "Let's go and visit the Cholmondeley sisters." It's so lovely how very different from each other they are, but how much the same. You get pleasure from them: they're women; they're siblings; they look beautiful; they're a reflection of an earlier time; they're all the very simple things you enjoy in a painting. And they must have their own stories: the painting is full of possibilities.

Nicholas Penny, director, National Gallery

The painting most appropriate for this particular anniversary is Rubens's Peace and War, the proper title of which is Minerva Protects Pax from Mars – though I hate that title. It was a diplomatic gift from Rubens to Charles I, when the painter was acting as an envoy for Philip IV, but nevertheless seems to me a painting for everyone. It is allegory, it's portraiture, it's animal painting, it's fruit-and-vegetable painting, it's got quite a lot of landscape, it's got the female nude, it's got men in armour. It was a gift from the Duke of Sutherland to the newly founded National Gallery about 200 years after it was painted, an amazing gesture of support: the Duke was donating one of the most valuable paintings in London.

The work of art I always visit when I go to the Victoria and Albert museum is a white jade cup that is known to have been used by Shah Jahan, one of the great Moghul rulers of India. Curiously, it's not that different in date from the Rubens: the middle of the 17th century. It reminds me of the game animal, vegetable or mineral. It shows the transparency as well as the hardness of jade, but at the same time incorporates animal and vegetable: the lotus flower at the foot, and the head of an ibex, which forms the handle. It epitomises the art of so many different cultures although it's a quintessential, high quality product of Islamic civilisation. This and the Rubens are two pieces of court culture completely accessible to the man in the street.

Lauren Laverne, broadcaster

At the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London there is a Dutch doll's house from the 1600s. It's very beautiful and the craftsmanship that went into it is mindblowing. It's also interesting because it shows how a house ran at that time, in that place. The idea behind it was to teach little girls how to become wives; it illustrates how much of our culture is indoctrinated into us through play and leisure.

Whenever I go into the British Museum, that ceiling in the atrium makes you look up, and as soon as you look up like that you're like a kid again. It puts you into an inquisitive, exploratory frame of mind. That's what I like about the Museum of Childhood, too: it's a lovely blend of history, mystery and fun.

John Leighton, director, National Galleries of Scotland

The portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, made in 1787, is probably the best-known portrait in our collection, which opens free to the public today. Like many people, I saw it first on a shortbread tin, but when you come face to face with the original it's astonishingly vivid, and you can feel that spirit of democracy and generosity Burns is famed for. The artist left it unfinished because he was afraid to lose what he said was a superb likeness. In among all the grand, eloquent portraits of powerful people in this gallery, this small, modest picture speaks very loudly indeed.

My favourite work in another gallery is from the National in London. It's another portrait, this time by Jacques-Louis David of Jacobus Blauw, a young Dutch ambassador trying to negotiate a peace treaty with France. It's a very direct rendering of the clarity and youthful idealism people associated with the French revolution. If you imagine that this is 1795, with guillotines crashing all over the place, you'd have to be a particularly skilled diplomat to negotiate with the revolutionary government. The portrait gives no indication of that hardship – instead, you're drawn in by the rendering of the materials, the steely blue jacket with a hint of his hair powder on the collar, and this pink face that engages you so directly you feel you've come eye-to-eye with this young Dutchman.

AL Kennedy, author

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow has a wonderful full-length statue of Robert Louis Stevenson. He's a writer I hugely admire, and the piece seems to catch something of his spirit in a way photographs of him don't. When I first moved to Glasgow and was very much a tyro writer, I would occasionally wander off to Kelvingrove and potter. The building was – and is – beautifully uplifting in itself, and much warmer than I could afford to keep my flat. I would always end up spending a while with the RLS statue. It's not idealised like his memorial in Saint Giles, or the standard depictions of the great and good; he looks like someone who thought and travelled and had a lean kind of energy and efficiency about him. I find it inspirational.

Christopher Brown, director, Ashmolean Museum

I'm going to be a little opportunistic and choose an object from our new Egyptian galleries. I'm hugely moved by a remarkable mace head we have that dates from 3,000 BC and comes from Hierakonpolis. It's called the scorpion mace head and depicts an emperor. He's wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and he's hunting. I'm just enormously impressed by its sophistication as a piece of early sculpture: eat your heart out, Donatello.

I worked for many years at the National in London. I particularly love a late painting there by Giovanni Bellini, the Madonna of the Meadow. It shows the virgin with Christ in her lap, but it's a premonition of the Pietà. It has a beautiful, desolate landscape on the left, and on the right a prosperous landscape with a beautiful view of the area north of Venice where Bellini was working. When I worked at the National, one of the great joys was that people would drop in to the gallery between trains at Charing Cross, to come in and see something. You don't feel: "Well, I've spent £5 – I've got to make it worth my while." You can just go and look at a single picture. That to me is the key to free admission.

Michael Dixon, director, Natural History Museum

The Archaeopteryx lithographica is the most valuable single fossil in our collection. It is a famous snapshot of evolution in action that demonstrates conclusively that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs. It has huge scientific, historical and financial value. Elsewhere, the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum is fundamentally important to our understanding of archaeology and ancient cultures.

Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director, Serpentine Gallery

We don't have a permanent collection, but the Serpentine Pavilion series, now in its 11th year, allows the public to enjoy the work of international architects who haven't yet completed a building in the UK, for three months over the summer. My favourite pavilion? I couldn't possibly say!

The Turbine Hall commissions at Tate Modern are an extraordinary rollcall of some of the greatest practitioners of today. Louise Bourgeois's spider, Maman, and I Do, I Undo, I Redo, launched the whole programme in the most remarkable way. It's wonderful to see how artists address that space.

Sandy Nairne, director, National Portrait Gallery

One of our most enigmatic portraits is the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare by John Taylor of 1610. It's wonderfully mysterious. Taylor is not an artist we know a great deal about, and there's been plenty of speculation as to whether this was taken from life. For me, the idea of why we look at portraits of figures in history is embodied in this picture. I look at it at least two or three times a week. We refer to it as our No 1 because it is the first portrait that entered the collection in 1856, given by Lord Earlsmere.

I often go and look at Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 next door in the National Gallery. It's not very different in date from the Shakespeare – it's 1640 – but is the absolute complement: whereas the Taylor is all about Shakespeare, this is about Rembrandt himself. Like all great self-portraits, it makes you question who you are and absolutely crosses time – that sense of self-examination. It's just the most brilliant painting, and to be able to just walk in and look at it is a fabulous thing.

Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery

One of my favourite exhibits currently on display here is the Bloomberg Commission: Josiah McElheny: The Past Was a Mirage I'd Left Far Behind. Large-scale, mirrored sculptures are arranged as multiple reflective screens for the artist's interpretation of experimental abstract films. What is interesting is the way McElheny has responded to the site, which was previously the reading room of the former Whitechapel Library, a haven for early modernist thinkers such as Isaac Rosenberg. The library was built as a "lantern for learning"; McElheny has used the moving images and illumination as central motifs.

Elsewhere, the Sir John Soane's Museum is a delight, with important works from Hogarth to Canaletto set among drawings, historical architectural models and other fascinating antiquities.

Martin Roth, director, Victoria and Albert museum

Our medieval and Renaissance galleries opened two years ago to house one of the world's most remarkable collections of treasures from the period, marking the end of the first phase of our plan to modernise the museum. They host the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy, with an exceptional group of sculptures by Donatello who was the greatest sculptor of his time. I particularly admire this pieceThe Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1428-30) which combines two different scenes from the Gospels – one of the finest surviving examples of his astonishing low-relief carving technique.

Gauguin was one of the most important artists of the 19th century, and his experimentations with new styles and radical expression continue to inspire people today. Vision after the Sermon is one of the masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery collection and this dramatic work changed the course of the history of art. Gauguin travelled the world and it's fascinating to see the influence of many forms of art in his work, from Japanese prints to ceramics.


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November 09 2011

Taylor Wessing portrait prize: another animal, another girl with red hair

Was Jooney Woodward's shot of a red-head holding a guinea pig really the best of the 6,000 entries? And what makes her think it's an 'unsettling' work?

Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize – in pictures

Click on the image to see it in full

Last year, the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize shortlist courted considerable controversy by including Panayiotis Lamprou's explicit photograph, Portrait of My British Wife. In the end, though, Lamprou's intimate image came second to David Chancellor's more stately portrait, Huntress With Buck: a deftly composed image of a flame-haired teenage girl, aptly named Josie Slaughter, on a horse with a dead deer draped over the steed's neck. As portraits go, it managed to be traditional and dramatic, but I would have much preferred to see Jeffrey Stockbridge's more edgy portrait, Tic Tac and Tootsie, winning.

This year, though, the shortlist provided no controversy and little drama. It has just been won by Jooney Woodward for Harriet and Gentleman Jack, a portrait of a another flame-haired girl who is cradling a guinea pig. (At this rate, next year they will be inundated with portraits of red-haired teenage girls with animals.) Woodward describes her portrait as "unsettling". Well, it's a nice pic: the girl's hair and the guinea pig's fur complement each other nicely. And there's a scratch on Harriet's hand that suggests Jack may be no gentleman. But "unsettling" it isn't. The bigger question is: was this really the best of the bunch – a total of 6,000 entries by over 2,500 photographers?

I must say, the same question entered my head when I initially saw the shortlist back in early September. I could see the craft of Jasper Clarke's beautifully understated portrait of Wen, an artist in her studio; and the edginess of Jill Wooster's Of Lili, which stood apart with its raw, almost aggressive, energy. The rest, though, were driven by good intentions – Andie by David Knight, Christina and Mark, 14 Months by Dona Schwartz – but good intentions do not necessarily make for good photographs.

I was not the only one disappointed at the dullness of the selection. Over at the National Journal of Photography, a blog on the shortlist drew an avalanche of negative comments, ranging from "Is it me? Am I missing something?" through "I am speechless, is this really the best of the best?" to "Yawn yawn".

For once, I found myself in some agreement with the online naysayers. Where's the excitement, the sense of mystery, not to say confusion, a great photographic portrait should inspire in the viewer? With one exception, Jill Wooster, it was safe, undemanding work, technically brilliant but lacking any glimmer of emotional power. If the judges concurred with Woodward's "unsettling" verdict, they really do need to get out more.


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November 08 2011

Taylor Wessing winner finds glory with a guinea pig

Winner Jooney Woodward shot winning photographic portrait at Royal Welsh Show in Powys

It was not the most immediately promising place to take such a striking photograph – the guinea pig judging area of the Royal Welsh Show – but it proved fruitful for Jooney Woodward who has been named winner of the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize.

Woodward won £12,000 for her portrait of 13-year-old Harriet Power, cradling her guinea pig Gentleman Jack, named after the Jack Daniel's whiskey box in which he was given to her.

More than 6,000 portraits were submitted by 2,506 photographers from around the world for the prize organised by the National Portrait Gallery. Sandy Nairne, the gallery's director, called the winning work "a brilliant, empathetic study of a young woman".

Tim Eyles, managing partner of the law firm Taylor Wessing, sponsoring the prize for the fourth year, also offered congratulations. "This year's images collectively convey a realism and depth of vision that makes them both relevant and easy to relate to," he said.

Woodward's photo could be seen as unusual as she used actual film. Before she knew of her win, she said: "I prefer the quality and depth you get from using film; unfortunately it's a dying art."

The freelance photographer, 32, used a Mamiya RZ medium format camera. "I don't mess around with Photoshop so what you see is what you get. Enhanced images can portray a false sense of reality, whereas my work celebrates the people and places as they appear every day," she said.

Woodward found her sitter while she was scouting for subjects at the big agricultural show held at Builth Wells, Powys.

At Tuesday night's London ceremony, American photographer Jill Wooster won the £2,500 second prize, and her compatriot Dona Schwartz won third.

An exhibition of 60 portraits will run at the gallery from 10 November until 12 February.


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October 18 2011

Portrait of Nell Gwyn uncovered

Simon Verelst's erotic painting, not seen in public for 50 years, will be used as a mascot to promote First Actresses exhibition

A daringly erotic portrait of Nell Gwyn not seen in public for 50 years will be included in an exhibition on the first actresses.

The 17th-century artistic convention to indicate the subject was a courtesan or actress is now known as the "nipple slip" – but this detail of a portrait by Simon Verelst goes somewhat further. "This one is much more daring, it shows her practically naked to the waist," said Gill Perry, curator of the show, which opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London on Thursday. "We are absolutely thrilled to have it. It's exciting."

The portrait's existence had been known but its location was not. After plans for the show emerged, the owner came forward to offer the painting, which had been in her family since the 1940s. Gwyn's modesty had been covered – probably by the Victorians – but once it was conserved its true subject was revealed. Perry said: "There was the classical tradition of naked women, so in the 17th century you could still claim to be reworking those traditions, although everyone knew that when it was a secular subject, it meant something more."

There are a lot of portraits claiming to be of Gwyn but few are authentic. The gallery is certain this one is genuine. She will be used in banners and on London Underground posters to promote the show.

It was the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that finally allowed women on the English stage. Before then men or boys played female roles. Gwyn was one of the first female actors and quickly became very well known. "Not only was she a good actress she was incredibly astute at manipulating her image and abilities," said Perry. Deft networking and a long affair with the king – she had two children by Charles – helped Gwyn become one of the first celebrities.

"She became extraordinarily popular. She had a very bold character, she was witty and outspoken and she had a charisma."

Gywn's fame was helped by mass reproduction of her image and the admiration of people such as Samuel Pepys. But she also played a role. "I'm sure she would have encouraged all the visibility and publicity that circled around her," said Perry.

The portrait is one of 53 in the exhibition, with paintings by artists such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough and subjects who include Sarah Siddons and Mary Robinson.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons,National Portrait Gallery, London, until 8 January.


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September 21 2011

Funny faces: comedians from the 40s to now – in pictures

More than 50 photographic portraits of comedians from the 40s to the present day have gone on display at the
National Portrait Gallery



National Portrait Gallery celebrates 70 years of British comedy

Exhibit includes modern performers Russell Brand and Johnny Vegas, as well as stars from the past such as Kenneth Horne

From Benny Hill looking dirty-minded to Johnny Vegas looking sexy, the National Portrait Gallery in London is celebrating British comedy in a free display that includes several recent acquisitions.

The gallery said it had acquired a photograph originally commissioned by the Guardian, which shows Vegas mimicking Demi Moore's pregnant pose on the cover of Vanity Fair. The photograph is one of more than 20 taken by Karl J Kaul, including Sacha Baron Cohen as Michael Jackson and Russell Brand as Christine Keeler.

Other recent acquisitions include portraits of Jimmy Carr and Mitchell and Webb by Barry Marsden, Omid Djalili by Karen Robinson and Matt Lucas by Nadav Kander. The display charts 70 years of British comedy, from people such as Kenneth Horne in the 1940s to the Catherine Tate Show. Along the way it takes in comedians and comic performers from the Goon Show to Les Dawson to Victoria Wood.

Clare Freestone, the gallery's associate curator of photographs, said the NPG aimed to promote an appreciation of people who have made and are making British history and culture. "Comedians do this in a unique way," she said. "They are very good at reflecting back at us the times in which we live and, of course, they make us laugh."

She said the gallery had a large number of photographs of comedians taken over the last century, some by celebrated photographers such as Bill Brandt, Lewis Morley and Annie Leibovitz.

"This display gave us the opportunity to highlight a group of people that have always been held high in public affection, with their performances often creating national talking points."

Comedians: From the 1940s to Now runs until 8 January 2012


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July 25 2011

Olympics 2012 exhibition goes on display at National Portrait Gallery

Images of non-competitors such as Sebastian Coe and Danny Boyle as well as Olympic and Paralympic athletes on show

As suffering for your art goes it ranks quite highly: standing precariously for 40 minutes in a fantastically cold lake holding up an expensive camera to capture two of Britain's best Olympic rowing prospects.

The resulting portrait of Andrew Triggs Hodge and Pete Reed on the training lake at Caversham in Reading was one of 37 which on Monday went on display at the National Portrait Gallery. The portraits unveiled were by two photographers: Finlay MacKay shot Olympic and Paralympic athletes in their training environment, while Emma Hardy had the task of photographing non-competitors including 2012 chairman Lord Coe.

MacKay said the rowing shoot, on a cold day in March, was undoubtedly the trickiest. He realised quickly that standing on a bobbing punt was not going to produce the picture he wanted, so found some waders and jumped in.

"I was soaked and freezing cold, pretty much got hypothermia. I was in the water for about 40 minutes with a £20,000 camera that I was having to hold up as well as trying to stop the rowing boat from moving."

MacKay's portraits all show Olympic athletes in some sort of training environment and include triple jumper Phillips Idowu a few feet off the ground, bolt upright; gymnast Louis Smith; Taekwondo hopeful Aaron Cook; and brother and sister Anna and Michael Sharkey, who will be competing in the only teamsport for visually impaired athletes – the little-known goalball.

Hardy's portraits include the man in charge of Olympic policing, Chris Allison; Ruth Mackenzie, who runs the Cultural Olympiad; and film director Danny Boyle who is in charge of the opening ceremony.

Boyle revealed Monday that he will this week be showing the prime minister David Cameron a flavour of the planned ceremony with a 40-minute computer-generated promo film.

Ordinary people will have to wait as Boyle was giving little detail away beyond it will last about three hours. "The function of the ceremony is to welcome the athletes to the city and the games and we have to remember that, it should be a generous welcoming," he said. "It will be also be a chance to show an image of ourselves that we feels reflects us."

He thanked Hardy for the portrait. "You've made me look very handsome – a bit serious."

Hardy said she wanted to show her subjects away from their offices and in places where there minds were at work, their creative juices flowing. Hence, Coe is pictured on a run and it is also presumably why Michael Morpurgo – who is writing the story of the 2012 mascots – and 2012 marketing director Greg Nugent are pictured in the pub. The portraits are the second tranche commissioned by the NPG and will be on display in London until 25 September.


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July 24 2011

After Freud, the camera – fast and super-cruel – will rule supreme | Mark Lawson

With Lucian Freud's death, the art of the portrait has passed from the canvas to the screen

Imagine you run the National Portrait Gallery of Britain, the US or Australia and, during an audit of the stores, panic at lacking an image that encapsulates the personality and life of Rupert Murdoch.

Supposing the News Corp jet could be parked in one place for long enough to facilitate sittings, you could commission a painter to lay the tycoon on a canvas to hang alongside the oils of Beaverbrook, Hearst and other media tycoons from the time when immortality in a gilt frame above the fireplace was as much a badge of power as a Rolls.

My preference, though, would be to screen-grab a section of Murdoch's evidence to the House of Commons select committee and display it either as a still or as a slowed-down silent loop of blinks, twitches and grimaces in the style of the video installations of the American artist Bill Viola. This decision is made easier because the contemporary painter most likely to have found something in Murdoch that he was able to withhold from the lens – Lucian Freud – is now unavailable.

This is not a declaration of the death of painting. Remarkable painters (including Jasper Johns, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Peter Doig) exist in many generations and places. But the death of Freud highlights a specific crisis in the art of the traditional portrait.

While the camera didn't quite do to the canvas what the mobile phone has done to the phone box, it put threatening writing on the walls of portrait galleries. Strong evidence of the crisis of portraiture comes from the dustjackets of biographies and the illustration of newspaper profiles. Whereas figures of the past are commonly preserved in oil, the signature image of most writers and politicians of the 20th and 21st centuries exists on either still or moving film.

There are occasional exceptions, such as Ruskin Spear's uncanny capture of the combination of cunning and avuncularity that was Sir Harold Wilson, or the presentation by Tai Shan Schierenberg (a fine traditional portraitist of the present day) of Sir John Mortimer's Falstaffian personality. But, in most cases, it is now an exposure that most exposes.

After a period in which Andy Warhol and others fascinatingly blurred photography and painting, many portraitists responded to this competition with so-called photorealism. This defensively mimetic approach is popular with the entrants to the annual BP Portrait Prize (currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery). Much more impressively, Sam Taylor-Wood – in her spooky and beautiful video portrait of a sleeping David Beckham – showed how apparently threatening technology could be harnessed to artistic advantage.

Freud's greatness, though, lay in understanding, either tactically or instinctively, that a new form of portrait was called for in the Kodak century. He rewrote the rules of life painting at every stage. Rejecting the tradition of the biographical artist as a brush for hire by the mighty, Freud in most cases commissioned his sitters – who frequently were not famous.

The key breakthrough, though, came in the relationship between his mind and their bodies. Obituary coverage has featured the ritual squeals that his picture of Queen Elizabeth II looked nothing like her but, first, it does and, second, absolute likeness should be left to the appropriately named snappers. A Freud painting, living up to the adjective the family surname spawned, was a psychological and physiological study.

Above all, Freud rescued portrait painting from its traditional sin of flattery. In this way, he continued an argument with the public that had begun with Graham Sutherland, whose picture of the ruined glory of Winston Churchill – subsequently destroyed by the scandalised family – became a symbol of the campaign by art's conservative forces to equate likeness with likability. With the Sutherland lost, the defining image of the war leader is, symbolically, a photo: the one in which Karsh of Ottawa caught a startlingly honest expression by confiscating the politician's cigar.

The camera has the edge on painters in both immediacy (able to seize a single moment the subject has not chosen) and brutal honesty: a stripping of flattery completed by the super-real, super-cruel digital images in which Murdoch's Westminster evidence was transmitted.

I would pay the $33m someone paid for Freud's Benefit Supervisor Sleeping to see Jenny Saville's naked representation of Rupert Murdoch but it is highly unlikely that either painter or subject would be interested in a sitting.

For decades, Freud succeeded in a fight that is now unwinnable. With his passing, the art of the portrait has passed from the canvas to the screen.


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June 15 2011

BP Portrait award unlocks our passion for painting

Open to anyone, the prize – for which I was a judge – is open to anyone and attracted 2,000 entries. It's one of the most democratic awards there is

The fascinating thing about the BP Portrait award is that anyone can enter – and nearly everyone does. OK, that's an exaggeration, but this year it once again attracted more than 2,000 hopeful entrants from all over the world. You paint a portrait, send or deliver it to the National Portrait Gallery, and a jury – which this year included me – looks at each painting individually before narrowing down the possibles, then the probables, and finally deciding on 55 works to exhibit as well as selecting the winners.

Fifty-five paintings are a lot, and yet this year, for the first time, there is also an alternative show, a salon des refusés, set up by artists who did not make the final cut. Good luck to them. After all, this year's show at the National Portrait Gallery includes Louis Smith's painting Holly, which might easily be by a 19th-century academician, so it is only appropriate for painters who feel excluded to go the way of the French impressionists and set up a rival exhibit.

Judging this competition made me think about criteria of artistic judgment far more intensely than I expected. It comes down to the fact that it is open to all, which means a huge variety of skills and sensibilities are juxtaposed in the warehouse where the judging is done. In a way, I wanted every artist we saw, of every ability, to be exhibited: the full spectacle was a kind of anthropological portrait of the world today. Yet by excluding some you reward others; and if this year's exhibition works for visitors, it is because it recognises the fact that ability and originality don't have to follow any conventions prescribed by critics, curators or fashion setters. I admire the way the National Portrait Gallery brings outsiders inside a prestigious public space.

This year's winner, Wim Heldens, is a completely self-taught professional artist. He is deeply serious about painting and we were captivated by the technical excellence and controlled intensity of his work. It is a loving portrait, pure and simple, and it's slightly amazing that artists today are driving themselves on to master such skills at a time when the art form's death is so often announced.

The same goes for Manchester artist Louis Smith, who took second prize. He, too, has studied and continues to study the rarefied techniques of traditional painting. His picture, Holly, is a tour de force. Whatever you think of its content or motivations, you need to look at the way he has painted his model. There's something confounding about his sheer ability and work. What if a lot of artists mastered these skills again? What would happen?

A Channel 4 live report of the awards ceremony wondered if Heldens's win represents a new conservative mood. I'm not sure that's true, because this prize tends that way by definition; I think maybe we applied the logic of what it is more clearly than in other years, however. The fact is that more than 2,000 people sent in figurative paintings, and that is a lot of energy going into drawing and painting and looking at someone. It's great that BP and the National Portrait Gallery give an outlet to a tidal wave of enthusiasm to make and see such art. You can say what you like about this year's award, but you cannot deny the passion for painting it celebrates.


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Climate activists target BP Portrait Award

Protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery showing the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Climate activists on Tuesday night targeted the BP Portrait Award ceremony in protest against sponsorship from the oil giant.

Demonstrators claimed BP was using the arts in an attempt to divert attention away from its impact on the environment.

But the National Portrait Gallery said the support of the global company was beneficial to artists.

The protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery that showed the impact of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

One of the pictures, entitled First Splash Since Spill, pictured a child playing in oil-covered water in Louisiana after being told it was safe.

The artist, Beverly Curole, said: "I captured Max, my grandson, on the first day the beach was opened and supposedly safe.

"Max was so excited he jumped in the water and made a huge splash. I then noticed flecks of oil at the tide line and knew something was wrong.

Some 14 portraits from the US Gulf Coast were submitted for tonight's award by campaign group Facing the Gulf.

Despite none of them being selected by the judges, the organiser Nancy Boulicault hoped they would force the gallery to look again at its link with BP.

She said: "We think the National Portrait Gallery needs to start asking themselves some questions about this relationship, in the same way as the people of the Gulf have had to ask themselves very serious questions."

She went on to say that the artists had some sympathy with the gallery.

"They understand the complications that come when oil becomes part of your life, because it's part of their lives.

"But what became quite important to everyone is the fact that we need another vision without oil in our lives.

"Our cultural institutions are about trying to create another vision, but when they are in bed with oil it's very hard for us to find that vision through our arts."

Facing the Gulf and direct action group London Rising Tide invited Sandy Nairne, the gallery's director, to view the alternative exhibition ahead of tonight's ceremony but said he declined.

A spokesman for the gallery said: "The National Portrait Gallery, while principally supported by grant-in-aid from government, is pleased to work with a wide range of companies in support of its exhibitions and displays.

"The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 22nd year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them."


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June 07 2011

Viva la divas: First Actresses at the National Portrait Gallery – in pictures

First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons opens at the National Portrait Gallery on 20 October and will show portraits of 17th- and 18th-century divas by artists ranging from Reynolds to Gainsborough



May 16 2011

Out of the ordinary: should we bar the public from this homage to Hoppé?

Crowdsourced 'artistic' responses to the street photographer have been hung in the National Portrait Gallery. But why?

EO Hoppé is one of the pioneers of street photography. The National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition, which ends on 30 May, includes his shots of ordinary people – bus drivers, postmen, circus performers – in London between the wars, as well as his more famous portraits of society figures.

The NPG, having noted that many of Hoppé's locations remain familiar today – London Zoo, Hyde Park, the Savoy Hotel – invited the public to respond to Hoppé's street scenes with images of their own. The crowdsourced result, as might have been expected, is a mixed bag. The 2,500-plus entries can be seen on this Flickr pool. Some have aimed to recreate the mood, and even the era, of Hoppé's pictures in black and white. Others have used his images as a tangential starting point to capture the vibrancy of today's city in colour and movement.

The five winning images, on display at the gallery until the show closes, just about cover the waterfront in terms of stylistic nods to Hoppé. I love Simon 64's short series of portraits of one daydreaming man on the tube, though they are more Walker Evans than Hoppé. The portrait of Rosa looking out of a window at a farewell scene by Tom Rosenthal manages to be contemporary and timeless, as well as intimate on several levels. Maciej Dakowicz has gone for the graphic approach and captured after-hours Cardiff in all its dissolution. The fact that the prone girl lying in front of the overflowing rubbish bin is entitled Happening – Cardiff makes me think it was staged. I hope so just because it is diametrically at odds with the reverent approach to Hoppé that prevails in, say, skernsnapper's black-and-white shot of young children on a street in Kilburn. It looks like time has stopped in the late 1950s here, making it more Shirley Baker than Hoppé. Ambra Vernuccio's street portrait of a young boy and a toddler in a wrecked car in Umoja is hardly Hoppé at all, but it's a great photograph that also manages to point up the oddly meaningless rules at work here.

What does this all add up to, though? Galleries getting hip to interactivity in a way that, say, newspapers already have? A new way of encouraging people to look at photography more closely? Or another way of endorsing the much-held but mistaken view that, of all the arts, photography is the one that anyone can do? (And please don't start up with the so-tired-as-to-be-embarrassing "photography isn't art" line.) Some people think this is a trend that will continue and expand in the future, allowing audiences to respond creatively to current exhibitions.

I'm not so sure. I'm fine with people responding to great photography, I'm just not sure how instructive the results are, or if, in a world already overcrowded with images, I want to see another batch of mildly interesting ones. That's not what I go to an art gallery for.


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April 30 2011

A deeper connection

National Portrait Gallery, London

The portraits in our museums appear together but separate. We see them as distinct, contained in their frames, loners in a crowded room. This is partly the point of the art form: portraits single people out, present them as unique and deserving of the splendid isolation a solo image gives. But it is also in the nature of the institutions themselves.

For museums split people up. Married couples are divorced: the wife's portrait hangs in Paris, the husband's in Berlin. Mothers and fathers are separated from their children. Lovers in life are parted in the gallery, along with close friends and families, while enemies are forced into false co-existence only inches apart on the wall.

Perhaps this is inevitable. The contents of any museum depend to a substantial extent upon the whims of the donors, upon collectors who chose to offer the portrait of the man but not the woman, to keep the duke but not the duchess, or could not afford to buy both in the first place. Society, in museums, is necessarily fragmented, but one can't help wishing it were not this way.

Take Quinten Massys's notorious The Ugly Duchess, with her outsize jaw and porcine nose, too deluded to realise how monstrous she looks in a low-cut dress; for centuries, the portrait has been interpreted as a vicious satire on vanity. But when reunited with her other half, in a recent National Gallery show, the rose the duchess holds is seen to be an offering for her husband, who gently reaches out to take it, full of affection. They are a most loving couple.

This is how they were depicted, how they were meant to be seen. It was an act of humanity to bring them, albeit temporarily, back together. And now two more curators have decided to rearrange the portraits in order to draw people (and not just pictures) together in Only Connect, a show of paintings, drawings, etchings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.

All 40 subjects are connected one way or another in a web that spans three centuries. The ostensible link is music, reaching back to Mozart and forward to Michael Tippett. You can probably guess who some of the guests may be given the gallery's nation-conscious remit: Delius, born in Bradford; Holst, born in Cheltenham; obviously Elgar and Britten.

But the party grows with the addition of conductors, spouses, lovers and cuckolds. And any show that includes James Gillray's skit on the ménage à trois of Sir William Hamilton, his wife, Emma, and her lover, Nelson, as an elderly connoisseur inspecting two dusty busts through the wrong end of a telescope in an antique shop – is off to a sprightly, unconventional start.

What is Nelson doing here? He admired Haydn, invited him to lunch, gave him a watch. But there is an alternative route. The musicologist Charles Burney (father of the novelist Fanny, portrayed by the painter Edward Burney) travels to meet Mozart in Bologna, where he later dines with Emma Hamilton, which takes us to Richard Cosway's beautiful sketch of Lady Hamilton pregnant with Nelson's child.

From here, you can move quite easily to Mendelssohn being shown round the Thames Tunnel by Brunel; who receives treatment from the oral surgeon Samuel Cartwright, inventor of the appointment system; who once gave a dinner in honour of Paganini; who once played a concert with Mendelssohn, arranging the guitar part for the composer to perform on piano.

The connections range from close to breezily haphazard. A surprising nexus is the improbably named Jelly d'Arányi, violinist daughter of the Budapest chief of police and dedicatee of works by Holst, Bartok and Ravel, who seems to have known practically everyone here after 1900. She is depicted sawing away on a badly foreshortened instrument, which only goes to show how hard it is to convey music in art.

For no matter how compelling their lives, or how curious their characters, these people must also make strong portraits. The Arányi is unusually feeble, although there are other weak works, notably of Paganini whose wildness goes entirely unnoticed by British artists such as Landseer.

But this show encourages one to look much more closely at the familiar as well as the overlooked. I've never paid enough attention to Martin Rose's synaesthetic portrait of Tippett in which the paint hovers, gathers and flies with the movement and character of music. Or Clara Klinghoffer's marvellous image of the pianist Harriet Cohen, concentrated, alive to some inner high note, eyes grown sightless with listening.

Tippett dreaming, Delius with his eyes closed in a crowd, Carl Friedrich Abel beaming out of Gainsborough's immense close-up – this is an opportunity to see portraits out of their usual period-based context. It is a fine shake-up. The shock of the new is more powerful when you can see Wyndham Lewis's acute vorticist portrait of Rebecca West, the two sides of her face – wistful, painfully intelligent – as mismatched as her fortunes in life, alongside GF Watts's oleaginous Victorian homage to Lord Leighton.

What emerges from this show is a social cross-section, a cultural milieu. And while the connections are very literally drawn as heavy lines on the wall, the display greatly enriches one's sense of the sitters, the society and the art. It is a good way of showing images, and people, as a group portrait united by love and intellectual affinity. It is also faithful to the truth that nobody exists in isolation.


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