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March 23 2011

When Hollywood stars were portrayed as gods

Exhibition of super-glamorous photographs will show big-name actors in the years when film studios ruled their lives

Nearly 70 super-glamorous photographs harking back to the days when film stars radiated, glowered and sizzled are to go on show this summer at the National Portrait Gallery.

Called Glamour of the Gods, the show will examine how Hollywood stars were created between 1920 and 1960, a period when studios controlled every aspect of their actors' lives.

The pictures are from the London-based John Kobal Foundation and include portraits of Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.

The photographers include George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, Bob Coburn, Ruth Harriet Louise and one of the few Britons working for the studios, Davis Boulton.

There will also be previously unseen studio portraits of actors including Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard – and film stills including Lillian Gish in The Wind, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

The show, organised by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, will explore pre-paparazzi times when the studio star system meant actors were always depicted as impossibly glamorous and inaccessible.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 7 July to 23 October.

Photograph: George Hurrell


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March 13 2011

Portraits of the artists by Ida Kar

National Portrait Gallery, London

Ida Kar is an artist who until now has not been well-served by history, though back in 1960 she was the first photographer to be granted a retrospective by a major London gallery. Her show at the Whitechapel Gallery was phenomenally successful; so much so, that it was the focus of a BBC documentary that asked the hoary old question: Is photography art? (Most of the panel of experts concurred that it was not.)

Apart from a valuable critical study by the photographic historian and critic Val Williams, which was published by Virago Press in 1989, little attention has been paid to a photographer who pioneered what might be called documentary portraiture – the merging of the subject with their working or living environment. The National Portrait Gallery's retrospective, which comes just over 50 years after the Whitechapel show, is a long overdue reappraisal of a photographer who, as its subtitle suggests, was as much a bohemian as any of the avant-garde artists who looked into her camera.

Born in Russia in 1908 to Armenian parents, Kar came of age creatively in 1920s Paris, when modernism was in full flow. She then moved to Cairo, where she married a photographer, Edmond Belali, and co-ran a portrait studio. Kar arrived in Britain, aged 37, in 1945, alongside her second husband, Victor Musgrave, an artist, critic and gallery owner, who was her conduit to the relatively small, tentatively bohemian, British art world of the time. Kar brought an outsider's eye to bear on that world, her larger-than-life presence and extravagant dress sense setting her apart from her subjects, many of whom seem to have been bemused or bedazzled by her. As many of these photographs show, she nearly always persuaded them to do her bidding.

The first thing that strikes you about Kar's portraits of British and European artists is her compositional brilliance. The studio or workplace, often cluttered with tools and works-in-progress, is nearly always the backdrop. She places a stern-looking Henry Moore at the end of a row of moulded torsos, the biggest of which is shrouded in shadow so it resembles a sphinx. Both Georges Braque and Jean Arp are surrounded by studio clutter, but both exude a calmness that is both relaxed and oddly formal – Arp is even wearing a hat and white gloves. They are not just at one with their working environment, she seems to be saying, they are their work.

She, too, seems at home in this kind of milieu, but, revealingly, two of her most striking portraits stand out because of their starkness. She frames a young, uncertain-looking Bridget Riley between two rigorously formal canvases, the artist's soft features and the dark tones of her hair contrasting with the geometric lines that seem to emanate from her. Kar's portrait of Yves Klein is even more mischievous, a sponge sculpture hovering to the right of his face like a giant Martian puffball. The extended caption tells us that this is one of Klein's famous blue pieces, but here the electric charge of colour that he is best known for is absent. Nevertheless, the end result manages to be both sombre and surreal.

When she photographs writers, particularly pre-eminent ones, Kar seems less sure of herself, reigning in her exuberance as if awed by their presence. Apparently, she did not know anything about TS Eliot when she photographed him in 1959 in the offices of Faber & Faber, but the formality of the portrait – he sits immaculately besuited, his hands folded over of a neat pile of manuscripts – bestows on him an almost royal presence, right down to the awkward suggestion of a smile.

Somerset Maugham, sitting upright on a vast grey couch and looking sideways out of the frame, fares less well under Kar's uncharacteristically stern gaze. He could be a deposed dictator in exile, solitary and brooding, or a funeral director awaiting another bereaved relative. Intriguingly, her female subjects often exude either a forced formality (Doris Lessing stranded among a forest of sprouting bulbs) or an overly studied daydreaminess (Maggie Smith looking pouty and slightly disinterested). The young Iris Murdoch, hard at work in what looks like an austere bedsit, resists this kind of idealisation, staring the camera down defiantly.

Kar, one senses, was happier among artists and their clutter, and the more avant garde they were, the more free and irreverent her gaze. Her portrait of Gustav Metzger, an exponent of "auto-destructive" art, is a case in point: he stands as if unaware of her camera outside a gallery beside a dismembered door frame, a broken chair and a "wet paint" sign. On the window, someone, probably Metzger, has scrawled various slogans, including "misfits at work". The slogan could just as easily apply to Kar. She was a photographer forever at home among the artistic misfits.

To this end, one of the most interesting things about this show is its array of artists who have fallen out of public and critical favour in the interim: Marie Laurencin, Germaine Richier, the naive painter Camille Bombois and the futurist Gino Severini, whom Kar captures resplendent in a hat made from folded newspaper. On the strength of her striking portrait of Laura Del Rivo, of whom I know nothing, I will be seeking out The Furnished Room, the novel she wrote about the bohemian world to which both she and Kar belonged.

Interestingly, too, her portrait of the art dealer John Kasmin, an early champion of David Hockney, looks like it could have been taken yesterday in Hoxton, London: the floppy fringe, the spectacles, the preppy suit and shiny boots make him a sartorial pioneer of modern geek-chic.

If one wanted to pinpoint the range of Kar's vision, one need only contrast two dramatically different, but utterly vibrant, photographs. The first is her extraordinary portrait of the ageing Augustus John, staring out intensely from between two sculpted female faces, their benign smiles at odds with his almost startled expression. It is a study in mortality, severe and uncompromising, but brimming with life.

The other is her beautifully composed snapshot of life in 1950s Russia, entitled State lottery, Stalinstadt. Here, amid the litter of discarded tickets, a woman stares off to her left at something out of the frame, while the lottery vendor behind her gazes off to his left. The woman in the background is staring intently at her lottery ticket, while the child in the foreground is staring at the camera, grasping a huge briefcase that sits surreally on her lap as she nestles happily in her pram. It is a portrait within a portrait within a portrait: the gazing child; the man and the woman staring vacantly in opposite directions; the lottery table exerting its magnetic pull on passers-by. All human life is here, caught by a photographer who excelled at following her instincts and then applying her singular formal skill to order them into art.

Until 19 June


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January 30 2011

Rankin's scarlet women on show at National Portrait Gallery

Portraits of models wearing creations by UK designers to hang beside paintings from collection which inspired them

In the imagination of the photographer Rankin, the scarlet sash of the improbably grateful man kneeling to receive the gift of a bible from Queen Victoria, and the scarlet sleeve of her husband Albert, have been transformed into a swirl of crimson silk designed by Matthew Williamson, billowing around the model Natasha Ndlovu.

A parade of Rankin's spectacular photographic portraits of models wearing creations by British designers including Dame Vivien Westwood, Stella McCartney, Hussein Chalayan, Giles Deacon and Alice Temperley, will hang in the National Portrait Gallery for just one night beside the paintings from the collection which inspired them.

The pairings will include Daphne Self beside the famous Tudor Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth I – Self is in a short black Westwood gown, Elizabeth in lavishly embroidered white satin – but Self's imperious stance echoes that of the queen trampling the globe beneath her feet into submission.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the Georgian feminist and author, and model Valerie Pain are both contemplative in white, and the Queen – by Andy Warhol and Katie Parsons in Giles Deacon – both pretty in pink.

In the pairing of Natasha and Victoria, only the vivid red appears to connect two very different women. In the Victorian painting by Thomas James Barker, the queen, who is flanked by Albert and two prime ministers, John Russell and Lord Palmerston, is presenting the bible to an unnamed representative of her empire: the title is The Secret of England's Greatness.

The portraits will all be on display for SNAPPED, a special fashion late night opening on 11 February, when the gallery will remain open until 10pm, hosting events including workshops on fashion illustration and a panel discussion joined by model Erin O'Connor, Lorraine Candy editor of Elle, and the equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone.

The photographs, and the events are part of the campaign by the organisation All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, which campaigns to broaden the outlook of the fashion industry beyond the catwalk tradition of stick insect thin models.


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January 19 2011

Temporary export bar for portrait of freed slave after £530,000 sale

Qatar's five-year deal with National Portrait Gallery means historic picture will return to UK after exhibition in Doha

Maev Kennedy

The dignified, handsome face of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, the earliest known British portrait of a freed slave, will remain in London at least for the time being after an agreement between the National Portrait Gallery and the painting's owner in Qatar.

The Qatar Museums Authority paid £530,000 for the painting at a Christie's auction, but the government imposed a temporary export bar after the sale because the work, by William Hoare of Bath, was seen as having great historic importance to the UK.

It shows Diallo as a devout Muslim, holding his Qur'an, which he had written himself from memory in London, and was apparently made at the request of his English friends despite his religious misgivings over being portrayed.

The NPG managed to match the price but the Qataris have reached a five-year deal to lend the work to the London gallery instead and abandoned the attempt to export the painting. The portrait will also be seen on a UK tour to Leicester, Liverpool and the north-east, and in 2013 will be the centrepiece of an exhibition in Doha, before returning to Britain.

Sandy Nairne, director of the NPG, said: "It is a portrait that sheds new light on cultural and intellectual exchanges in the first half of the 18th century."

Diallo, known in England as Job Ben Solomon, was born around 1701 into a wealthy and scholarly family of Muslim clerics in Senegambia, west Africa. He was highly educated and spoke several languages. However the former slave owner and trader was captured by a rival tribe, humiliated by having his beard shaved, and enslaved. He was rescued from a tobacco plantation in Maryland by Thomas Bluett, an English lawyer and missionary, and brought to England where he became a celebrity, meeting George II and the intellectuals of the 1730s, and translating Arabic documents and inscriptions for Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections would become the nucleus of the British Museum.

The NPG launched a campaign last summer to buy the picture, and raised the full amount with more than £100,000 in public subscriptions plus £330,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and £100,000 from the Art Fund charity. The donations and grants will now be returned.

Roger Mandle, the American director of the Qatar Museums Authority, said: "Working with the National Portrait Gallery will allow the cultural, historical and religious significance of this portrait to be fully researched. This material can then be shared on an international basis."

However, there will inevitably be more tricky discussions about the painting. Having dropped their bid to export the painting, Qatar cannot apply again for a licence within 10 years – but the London museum would like to keep the picture permanently.


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December 16 2010

Bohemian rhapsody: Ida Kar

In pictures: Next year the National Portrait Gallery will host an exhibition of work by the photographer famous for her portraits of artists and writers



November 16 2010

Richard II relics found in gallery

Skull drawings could be used to recreate true likeness of king who died in 1400 after being deposed by Henry IV

Researchers sifting the contents of long-unopened boxes at the National Portrait Gallery have discovered relics from the coffin of Richard II, along with detailed drawings of his skull which could be used to create a true likeness of the deposed medieval king.

To say the researchers were taken aback by the discovery in the archive of the gallery's founding director, Sir George Scharf, is perhaps an understatement.

"It was very surprising, yes," said Krzysztof Adamiec, the assistant archivist at the London gallery who made the discovery. The relics, he said, at first "just looked like a simple, empty box of cigarettes". He added: "But when I opened it up there were strips of leather and pieces of wood. It was very exciting for me – it's one of the biggest pleasures of this job to literally feel that you are touching history."

The wood is likely to be from Richard II's coffin, while there is compelling evidence that the leather is from his glove. There are also meticulously detailed sketches of the king's skull and bones, together with measurements which the gallery believes could be used to recreate a true likeness.

Scharf took charge of the gallery shortly after it was founded in 1857. After some detective work Adamiec was able to connect the relics in his archive with the decision in 1871 to open Richard's grave at Westminster Abbey.

The original intention was to clean the tombstones but, being inquisitive Victorians, those responsible decided that the coffin should be opened to try to establish how the king died in 1400 – after he was deposed by Henry IV – and whether it was because of an axe to the head. It wasn't.

Scharf, an enthusiastic witness, decided to pocket some mementoes, something which would be frowned upon now but was a "Victorian gentleman" thing to do. He was clearly a collector. Researchers have also found in the archive a pebble from the grave of Lord Macaulay, a piece of frame from a Raphael painting and the edge of a Van Dyck canvas.

The archive contains a huge amount of material, something like 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, which the gallery is about to complete cataloguing. Adamiec said: "He was a very meticulous man; he recorded everything. Every day he would make a note of the weather, which direction the wind blew, what he ate, who he met. Sometimes he would draw the table plans of dinners he attended."

Scharf, born in 1820, inherited his love of drawing from his father, who would take him on drawing expeditions, including one in 1834, to the ruins of the Palace of Westminster after the devastating fire, also documented in several paintings by JMW Turner. In 1854, he missed out on becoming director of the National Gallery but three years later was appointed secretary to the new NPG.

He was a prominent member of the Society of Antiquaries and seems to have particularly enjoyed grave openings, among them Richard II, Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York.

The Scharf archive catalogue is now available online, joining the papers of other gallery directors including Sir Lionel Cust and Sir Roy Strong.


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November 10 2010

Huntress catches portrait prize

David Chancellor's photo of 14-year-old Josie Slaughter on a horse carrying a dead buck beat 6,000 submissions to win

An arresting image of a teenage girl on horseback with her trophy of a hunted dead buck was last night named winner of a major photographic portrait prize.

The photographer David Chancellor was given this year's Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize at a ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery in London forhis submission, Huntress with Buck.

The image shows 14-year-old Josie Slaughter from Alabama on her first hunting trip to South Africa. Against a stunning background and sky, she looks impassively in to the camera, holding the dead animal's antlers up to prevent it flopping lifelessly over the horse's neck.

Chancellor said the location and light were key to the image's power. "Josie had hunted her buck earlier in the day and was returning to camp," he said. "As we arrived, the sun set below the cloud cover and I had almost unreal light for around a minute.

"The contrast between the peace and tranquillity of the location plus Josie's ethereal beauty and the dead buck was what I wanted to explore. Here was a vulnerability and yet also a strength."

Chancellor, who wins £12,000, took the photograph – shooting Kodak 160VC 120 film on a Mamiya 7 II camera – as part of a bigger project documenting hunters and the hunted.

He said he wanted "to explore the intricate and complex relationship between man and animals and how both struggle to adapt to their changing environment."

Chancellor, who divides his time between London and Cape Town, said he tried to remain objective about the subject matter: "The aim is always to be detached. In reality that's rarely possible, but I do hope I can observe without an agenda and without the necessity to shout."

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery and chairman of the judges, called Chancellor's image "a powerful and beautiful portrait, a worthy winner amidst a strong international submission".

Second prize went to Panayiotis Lamprou for Portrait of my British wife and third to Jeffrey Stockbridge for Tic Tac and Tootsie.

The portraits form part of an exhibition – with 60 portraits whittled down from nearly 6,000 submissions – that runs at the NPG from tomorrow until 20 February and then at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens from 16 April until 26 June.


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October 15 2010

The new romantic

Thomas Lawrence was a master of Regency portraiture who changed the way women were depicted in art. But he has long been mocked as a chocolate box sentimentalist. His ebullient work is due a reassessment, says Richard Holmes

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) belongs to what was once fondly called the "golden age" of British portrait painting – the age of Gainsborough, Northcote, Hoppner, Beechey and Reynolds. Yet his reputation, unlike theirs, has fluctuated in a remarkable way. Sometimes he has been regarded as the dazzling, bravura master of Regency portraiture; at others as a brash and sentimental commercial artist – even as a chocolate box painter. Lawrence's whole life, as well as his art, has long presented this intriguing dilemma. Now, at last, comes the chance for a reassessment.

Almost the exact contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lawrence was, like them, a "natural genius from the provinces", although, unlike them, he soon learned to conceal this in gentlemanly mannerisms. Indeed, he was always forced to be something of an actor. He was born in Bristol in April 1769, the son of a tavern-keeper, and grew up at his father's celebrated coaching inn, the Black Bear, on the Devizes road in Wiltshire. A beautiful and gifted child, he was considered a prodigy by his parents, able to recite Paradise Lost and dash off astonishing drawings by the age of five. His instinctive skill as a draughtsman, catching "likenesses" of his father's customers, especially the fashionable female ones, was soon remarked on by influential visitors, such as the novelist Fanny Burney. So too was his precocious ability to charm and seduce. By the time Lawrence was 10, his father was already charging for the boy's drawings and pastels.

Keen to exploit his gifts, his parents took him first to Oxford and then to Bath, where characteristically he caught the attention of both the actress Sarah Siddons and the Duchess of Devonshire. He was then launched in London, from rooms in Piccadilly, at the age of 17. Here Lawrence met the approval of the ageing Joshua Reynolds, and was briefly enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools. From then on Lawrence's professional success was meteoric. He was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 25, made a baronet in his mid-40s, and elected president of the Royal Academy in 1820, at the age of 51. His earliest pastel portraits at the Black Bear Inn had been sold for half a guinea. Some of his last portraits in oils went for 900 each.

Lawrence's genius first showed in his draughtsmanship. From the very beginning he was a brilliant delineator of the human face in chalk, crayon, pencil or pastel. His drawings are confident, psychologically acute, often witty and even mischievous. Consider his exquisite drawing of his early friend and mentor Mary Hamilton and her amazing Bo Peep hat. It was executed by Lawrence in 1789, at the age of 19, when he was first starting to exhibit at the Royal Academy. Part fashion plate and part romantic mood study, it has memorable impact. To the fine, intricate mesh of black chalk, he has added flushed highlights in red, like too much excitement rising into her cheeks. As with so much of Lawrence's best work, it is deliberately theatrical, dressy and provocative. Mary's pose is self-conscious, but refreshingly sexy. Lawrence has begun to create a new species of woman.

For his first 15 years in London, between 1790 and 1805, Lawrence's portraits were continuously prominent at the Royal Academy exhibitions. He plunged into the Regency world of aristocracy, fashion and theatre, but also found time for a few striking pieces of political reportage, such as his dramatic drawing of the young radical Thomas Holcroft and his supporter, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, at the treason trials in the Old Bailey in 1794. Again, Lawrence has chosen an intensely theatrical moment: Holcroft – on a capital charge – has just been found not guilty. Male friendship in adversity had great emotional significance for Lawrence, and the double portrait became a favourite motif.

For the young women of the time, Lawrence's sense of Romantic style and flamboyance often outran the tastes of even the most fashionable. The dazzling, airy portrait of the 30-year-old actress Elizabeth Farren announced his triumphant arrival at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790. Her seductive figure is offset by a provocative display of textures: muslin, fur, satin and silk, and above all perhaps her limp, leather chamois gloves. Each is rendered with sharp, voluptuous appreciation. At first it provoked only mocking reproach from its subject. Lawrence had actually made Farren far too thin. "You might blow it away," she groaned to him, "in short you must make it a little fatter, at all events diminish the bend you are so attached to, even if it make the picture look ill." Despite these unconvincing protests, Farren was shortly to become Lady Derby, for which Lawrence doubtless took not a little credit.

During these same momentous years, following the French revolution and the declaration of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, Lawrence also identified a new, swaggering masculine style emerging among the young men of the regency. Significantly it was "Byronic", some 10 years before Byron actually adopted it himself. Dark, dandyish, dashing, brooding – it combined an extraordinary mixture of male arrogance and almost feminine beauty, emphasised by vivid clothes, peacock hairstyles and smouldering glances.

Lawrence was painting his own generation, and effectively bringing it on to the stage of history. He supplied them with stormy or melodramatic backgrounds, dashed in with fast, free brushstrokes, as if liberating them from an old world of conventions. In contrast with the previous generation of artists – the smoothness of Reynolds, or the feather-light touch of Gainsborough – he rendered their clothes with thickly applied paint, strongly contrasted colours, and glittering, almost metallic, highlights. With these techniques, Lawrence expressed a new age of patriotism, flamboyance and bold individuality.

For all the extravagance of his portraiture, Lawrence's own life appeared – on the surface at least – curiously restrained. He repeatedly said he never bet on cards, never gambled on horses, never got drunk with friends (all proper regency male pastimes). Instead, he claimed his favourite reading was Jane Austen, and his most extreme sport was billiards. He never married. Yet he was handsome, flirtatious and charming to a perilous degree. His great friend and confidant, the painter and diarist Joseph Farington, bluntly called him "a male coquet". But this does not seem quite to explain the case. An anonymous female admirer wrote more perceptively: "He could not write a common answer to a dinner invitation without it assuming the tone of a billet-doux. The very commonest conversation was held in that soft, low whisper, and with that tone of deference and interest, which are so unusual, and so calculated to please."

It is true that Lawrence was the subject of endless gossip, his name linked romantically with many of his female sitters, the Duchess of Devonshire, Sarah Siddons (and both her daughters), the diarist Mrs Papendiek, the Honourable Miss Upton, the unhappy Queen Caroline (he had to sign a legal deposition disclaiming adulterous opportunity before her trial for divorce in Parliament), the ingénue Fanny Kemble and, most problematic of all, with the beautiful Isabella Wolff (another divorcée). Wolff may indeed have been his mistress, and her stunning silvery portrait – the most Sibylline he ever painted – conveniently took Lawrence 15 years to complete.

Lawrence met Wolff in 1803, after his long entanglement with the two Siddons girls (about which André Maurois wrote an entire novel, shrewdly suggesting Lawrence was not really in love with them at all, but was in thrall to their mother). His extensive, gossipy correspondence with Wolff was subsequently censored by his first biographer. An odd, amorous fragment from a letter written in Rome in June 1819 has survived. It gives a glimpse of Lawrence's billet-doux style. "My Bed Room Window is so small that only one Person can conveniently look out of it, but it looks over St Peter's . . . and as sweet Evening closes I often squeeze you into it, though it does hurt you a little by holding your arm so closely within mine." Isabella was safely in London at the time.

Another mystery was his finances. Despite his ever-increasing fees, Lawrence remained in debt for his whole life. By 1807 his bankers, Coutts, reckoned he owed some £20,000. Exactly what he spent his money on remains an enigma. Perhaps it was his collection of Old Masters – eventually sold off to pay his creditors on his death.

Lawrence had an acute and generous eye for fellow artists, and his letters show the encouragement and support that he gave to JMW Turner, Richard Parkes Bonington, the naturalist Audubon and William Blake. In fact Lawrence was one of the very few contemporaries who praised and actually purchased a copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He also said Blake's The Wise and Foolish Virgins was his "favourite drawing", and kept it on a special table. His studios were always ultra-fashionable. His first, at 41 Jermyn Street, is now occupied by the tradesman's entrance of Fortnum & Mason. The demand for portrait sittings were as relentless as consultations with a modern Harley Street specialist (and similarly priced). Lawrence would undertake as many as five two-hour sittings a day, charging a 50% deposit. Consequently, much of his correspondence was concerned with the failure to deliver finished portraits, sometimes drawn out over many years. Lord Ellenborough once threatened to prosecute him in the courts for refusing to complete a painting of his wife. Another aggrieved client challenged Lawrence to a dawn duel in Hyde Park.

Alfred, one of Lawrence's most faithful assistants, slyly suggested that unfinished portraits had their own uses, especially with female clients of a certain age. "Some of them do come in a huff, but they always go away pleased, for my master brings out the picture, and says it needs only be altered in the dress, and then they think they are handsomer than ever. One old lady came the other day and asked to see a picture of her begun 20 years ago . . . 'Do finish it Sir Thomas, it is such an excellent likeness.'"

Much changed for Lawrence after 1810, and the death of his arch-rival, John Hoppner. He completed his first portrait of the Prince Regent (later George IV), became the official court painter, and moved into grandiose apartments in Russell Square. In 1814 he was commissioned by the prince to paint all the leaders of the wartime coalition against Napoleon. This took him intermittently to Paris, Vienna and Rome over a period of five years. He embarked on his huge, ambitious portraits of the soldiers, statesmen, monarchs, clerics and self-important princelings of the age, and these made him an international star. He was knighted, and began to move in exalted social circles, hobnobbing with the grand and wealthy (Prince Metternich was a particular favourite), and writing long, excited letters to Wolff about it all. He even painted the pope.

To this heady period belong the great series of "swagger portraits", as they were once dismissively called. Here Lawrence's natural sense of theatre and style strive for a new dimension of historic resonance. The commanding figure of Field Marshal Blücher (whose martial roar can practically be heard), or the quiet, resolute elegance of the Archduke Charles of Austria, both still swathed in the smoke of battle, celebrate a defining victory. However, the glamorised portraits of the prince regent frequently attracted mockery. The republican critic William Hazlitt drily observed that Lawrence had skilfully transformed the prince into a "well-fleshed" Adonis. "The portrait goes far beyond all that wigs, powders and pomatums have been able to effect over the last twenty years."

On his return home, Lawrence performed the same magical stagecraft on government figures such as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel and George Canning. Although sometimes undoubtedly stagey, they reflect the rhetoric of the regency, and serve their proper purpose as official "portraits of record", splendid and monumental. Lawrence's original, graphic genius wonderfully informs the best of these later works. It is fascinating to see how the fixed, hawk-like glare of his hypnotic portrait of Wellington has emerged from the softer and more psychologically subtle drawing of the same subject.

His old sense of freedom and daring was developed even more fully in his later portraits of women. He had previously shown the glowing sexual radiance of Frances Hawkins, the mistress of Lord Abercorn, shamelessly reflected in the loving glance of her illegitimate child and the panting of her large pet dog. Now he gave the pert, seductive charm of Lady Selina Meade, the arch amusement of the Princess Sophia, or the teasing melancholy of Rosamund Croker, a sumptuous life all of their own. The portrait of Margaret, Countess Blessington (originally a working girl like Emma Hamilton), is one of the most glorious, brazen pictures Lawrence ever painted. Byron, when he first met Blessington in Italy, instantly identified her as the subject of Lawrence's picture and the archetype of the English regency belle. All London was "raving" over it, and over her, the author of Don Juan noted appreciatively. Even better, she gave his own mistress, Countess Guiccioli, "a furious fit of Italian jealousy".

From this professional and social high point, the swift collapse of Lawrence's reputation after his death in 1830, partly as the result of Victorian prudery, is an interesting matter of social history as much as art history. The novelist Thackeray, for instance, ridiculed Lawrence's flashy values in Vanity Fair (1847), and attacked his female portraits as "tawdry". In the last couple of decades the art historian William Vaughan has derided him as a painter "in a state of permanent adolescence". It became a witticism to say his only successor was the fashion photographer Cecil Beaton.

But as we look at Lawrence now, it is worth remembering that the Americans have always loved him; and the French, have always seen him in the larger, historic perspective. When Lawrence first began to exhibit in Paris, towards the end of his career in the 1820s, he was greeted as one of the great, liberating harbingers of British romanticism, and awarded the Légion d'honneur. He was seen as part of the movement that overturned all the old restrictions of classicism: along with Byron's poetry, the experimental science of Sir Humphry Davy, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the landscapes of Constable. "The English manner enjoys a triumph in Paris," wrote the young Stendhal, "Mr Lawrence's name is immortal."

In the legendary "English" salons of 1824–7, Lawrence's pictures of women, and of children, took his viewers by storm. His ebullient picture of the Calmady children, in which the youngest girl is practically kicking out of the picture frame, suggested a new, uninhibited approach to childhood. His celebrated portrait of Charles William Lambton in scarlet velveteens was sometimes assumed to be an imaginary portrait of the dreaming, youthful Byron, the very soul of English romanticism, and was reproduced across Europe as such, and is still instantly recognisable today. If it is chocolate box, in this new age of austerity we should gratefully indulge.

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 21 October to 23 January 2011. Guardian Extra members have a two for one ticket offer for the exhibition (guardian.co.uk/extra). www.npg.org.uk


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October 07 2010

EO Hoppé back in the frame

Street photography pioneer famous for Book of Fair Women to be celebrated with first major show in 30 years

The man who was one of the most famous photographers in the world in the 1920s – courted by the rich and famous when not going on street photography safaris with his friend George Bernard Shaw, yet almost forgotten when he died in 1972 – will be celebrated in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, it was announced today.

The last major exhibition of the work of EO Hoppé was more than 30 years ago, but the spring show at the NPG will include previously unseen street shots that have been buried since the 50s in the photographer's own voluminous archives.

He was better known as a studio photographer of radiantly beautiful women as well as society and showbusiness figures, politicians and royalty – work that made him rich enough to set up his studio in the palatial 33-room former home of the artist Sir John Everett Millais in Kensington.

However, curator Phillip Prodger says Hoppé was also interested in the nature of success and failure, and in the psychology of his subjects – often photographed in intense and startlingly modern tight-cropped close up, with no background detail.

"It has been a great pleasure to get to know Hoppé a little better," Prodger says. "He was a very interesting man; a progressive thinker with an unexpected and puckish sense of humour."

When Hoppé left the studio behind for the street, he was known to have worked with a hidden camera, concealed in a bag or brown paper parcel – leading to a hasty exit from some East End pubs and cafes when he was spotted. He was one of the first photographers to shoot with concealed apparatus.

One of the highlights will be an extraordinary portrait of the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky – his face drained, almost drugged – in character as the Rose from the Ballets Russes' Le Spectre de la Rose during the company's 1914 visit to London, when it was the most famous and outrageous in the ballet world. Nijinsky several times failed to turn up at the Kensington studio and finally, in despair, Hoppé went backstage at the theatre for the last performance. Nijinsky, drenched in sweat and exhausted, brushed past him wrapped in a dressing gown – and then dropped the gown and turned into the light for a few snatched shots.

The show will also include many images from Hoppé's most famous creation, his 1922 Book of Fair Women, a compilation of portraits of the women he considered most beautiful on earth – including, unusually for the time, African, Asian and Caribbean subjects. Prodger said that although it now seems a profoundly misogynist project, Hoppé meant to convey his belief that true beauty came from freedom and fulfilment.

Fair Women's success literally made him a judge of beauty. Wherever he went following its publication, including on tours of the US, beauty contests were hastily organised and he was invited to give the Hoppé seal of approval to the winner.

After the first world war, he mainly worked on building up his commercial photographic library – and in doing so buried his own reputation. The library was sold on to another collection, where his images were filed by subject among hundreds by other photographers. Many have only been identified by photography historians in the last decade.

In his final years, Hoppé was bitter that the Royal Photographic Society had never given him any recognition. But a campaign by fellow photographers including Cecil Beaton finally won him an honorary fellowship in 1972, the year of his death.

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street is at London's National Portrait Gallery from 17 February – 30 May 2011.


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September 17 2010

Power of an intimate portrait

Lamprou's Portrait of My British Wife – on the shortlist for this year's Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize – is a private moment made public. But when does art become voyeurism?

Warning: clicking on the picture reveals the full image, which is explicit and may offend

Photographers have taken explicit photographs since the invention of the form. It is still a surprise, though, to see Panayiotis Lamprou's image, Portrait of My British Wife, on the shortlist of this year's Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize. It is, as the Guardian's arts correspondent, Mark Brown, put it (perhaps understating the case somewhat), "arresting because of its intimacy". It begs the vexed question, when does art become voyeurism or, indeed, pornography?

Lamprou photographed his wife sitting outside their summerhouse on the Aegean island of Schinousa. She has just finished eating an omelette and the dirty pan sits on table at her elbow. She is staring at the camera with a gaze that is difficult to read, wearing a short dress – or long T-shirt – and nothing underneath. Her legs are apart and her vagina is visible beneath the skirt. There is something both coy and provocative about the portrait, which, according to the photographer, was not originally intended for public display. (What changed his – and her – mind?) It will be interesting to see how the National Portrait Gallery displays the image when they exhibit it in a show of 60 of the submitted portraits in November.

Undoubtedly many visitors to the gallery will find the image shocking, even offensive. Ironically, its tone of languor and intimacy sets it apart from the other three shortlisted portraits, all of which are provocative in different ways. Indeed, both Jeffrey Stockbridge's portrait of Tic Tac and Tootsie, twin sisters who have turned to prostitution on the streets of Philadelphia to fund their drug addictions, and Abbie Trayley-Smith's portrait of a young girl at a charity for obese children, could be considered more voyeuristic and exploitative.

Lamprou's portrait, though, cannot use the defence of social documentary or reportage. It is a private, intimate moment made public and, however consensual the contract between photographer and subject – and husband and wife - much of its arresting power lies in this uneasy dynamic. Do we, as viewers of what was originally an intensely private exchange, become voyeurs?

Lamprou's intimately explicit portrait is a very different kind of photograph than, say, the formally driven Teutonic female nudes of Helmet Newton, the hardcore imagery of Robert Mapplethorpe or the garish art-porn of Araki. Neither does it fit into the fashion-porn genre indulged in by the likes of Terry Richardson. Again, it is the intimacy of the setting – and the fracturing of that intimacy – that sets it apart and may even, for some viewers, make it even more problematic.

In both its explicitness and its blurring of the boundary between the private and the public, Lamprou's portrait calls to mind the taboo-breaking work of the young American photographer, Leigh Ledare. His book, Pretend You're Actually Alive, is a visual and written portrait of his mother, an erstwhile exotic dancer, who is both a narcissist and an exhibitionist. Over the years, he has photographed her in various explicit poses, both alone and with a succession of younger lovers, and the titles alone - Mom Spread With Lamp (2000) – give some indication of the content.

When Nan Goldin included Ledare's work in her selection for the Rencontres d'Arles Festival, last year, it caused considerable debate among visitors, many of whom found it either offensive or disturbing. (Ledare, for the record, is a charming, well-balanced individual, and the book does work, in an albeit disturbing way, as a fractured chronicle of a thankfully singular strain family dysfunction.) It does beg the – now quaintly old-fashioned – question, are some things better left to the imagination than the camera? Or, more pertinently, the gallery wall?

Interestingly, too, it is nearly always women who are the object of the camera's gaze in these provocative photographs. (Mapplethorpe, a gay man, and Richardson, a self-confessed exhibitionist, both turned the camera on themselves, but they are the exceptions.) Would, one wonders, a full-frontal photograph of a relaxed, sun-dappled Lamprou taken by his wife be as arresting or provocative?

What strikes me most about Lamprou's portrait – apart, of course, from its explicitness – is its apparent casualness. It has none of the heightened formal power of David Chancellor's portrait of a 14-year-old girl astride her horse with a dead impala. Instead, it looks, at first glance, like a holiday snap – but that, too, is part of its odd, and confusing, power. The dirty pan, the cluttered table, and the blurred chair in the foreground are all familiar signifiers of that certain feeling of relaxed torpor that descends on us when we settle in to a holiday. It's just that the eye is drawn elsewhere; we are given licence to look, to linger, to transgress the boundary between the accepted and the forbidden – at a cost, perhaps, to all of us, the photographer, the subject and the viewer … and to our ever-shrinking imaginations.

Now see this

I wrote about The Election Project by British photographer, Simon Roberts, back in Apri, when he was preparing to set off around Britain in his motor home to capture the country in the grip of election fever. The intriguing results – alongside all 1,696 election-based photographs posted on his website by the general public – are currently being exhibited at Portcullis House, Westminster, SW1. This weekend – 18-19 September – it is open to the public, and you can visit by appointment over the next few weeks. Info at www.theelectionproject.co.uk


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September 15 2010

Twin peeks

Images of drug addicted twins and a semi-naked wife listed for £12,000 Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize

A striking image of twin sisters who live on the streets of north Philadelphia and have turned to prostitution to fund an addiction to prescription drugs will compete for a major photography award.

The National Portrait Gallery in London today announced the shortlist for this year's Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize and the nominees are works that pull few punches dealing with issues that include prostitution, obesity, femininity and hunting.

The US photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge is shortlisted for his photograph of 20-year-old twins Tic Tac and Tootsie (Carroll and Shelly McKean) sitting, looking strong but vulnerable, on concrete steps. It is when the true story of the twins is known that the poignancy of the image becomes clear. According to Stockbridge, the twins live on the street, suffer from insomnia and have been led to prostitution by the need to fund their addiction.

Stockbridge, who has exhibited widely since graduating from his photography studies at Drexel University, Philadelphia, in 2002, said: "Enduring unthinkable pain on a daily basis, the sisters are both incredibly strong and weak at the same time. Caught in the grip of their addiction, they do whatever it takes to survive, except for getting clean."

Panayiotis Lamprou is shortlisted for an image called Portrait of my British Wife that is arresting because of its intimacy. The Athens-born Lamprou photographed his semi-naked wife after the couple had just eaten an omelette at their summerhouse on the tiny Aegean island of Schinousa. Although not originally intended for public display, the image has been included in numerous publications and exhibited in 16 European exhibitions. This will be the first time it has been on show in the UK. "To me, it expresses female power and independence as well as my devotion to my wife," he said.

The third photograph is by south Wales-born Abbie Trayler-Smith and is from a series on childhood obesity. It is a picture of a young girl called Chelsea, part of a group in Sheffield called Shine that helps teenagers deal with obesity.

Trayler-Smith said: "Whilst talking about how it feels to live with the prejudices that come with being overweight, I looked away to change the film in my camera. When I looked back the picture was suddenly there. I shot one frame."

The shortlist is completed by David Chancellor, a British photographer based in London and Cape Town, who is nominated for Huntress with Buck. The portrait shows 14-year-old Josie Slaughter – from Alabama on her first hunting trip to South Africa – astride her horse with a dead impala.

Chancellor said: "As a child I was fascinated by the tales of Colonel Jim Corbett hunting man-eating tigers in India. As an art student it was Peter Beard's seminal work The End of the Game that fascinated and inspired. This work will seek to explore the intricate and complex relationship between man and animals and how both struggle to adapt to their changing environments."

The photographers are competing for a £12,000 first prize which comes with a feature story commission from Elle magazine. An exhibition featuring 60 of the best portraits from the 6,000 submissions will run at the National Portrait Gallery from 11 November until 20 February.


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August 16 2010

Robin Gibson obituary

Forward-looking curator at the National Portrait Gallery

Robin Gibson, who has died of cancer aged 66, was one of the key, but least obtrusive, curators of the modern National Portrait Gallery in London. He was responsible for the opening of Montacute House, Somerset, as an outstation, was a strong devotee of the BP portrait award from its origins in 1980, at least as committed to contemporary as historical portraiture, and the curator of many memorable exhibitions. These included The Portrait Now, which coincided with the opening of the new 20th-century galleries in autumn 1993, and ended with his remarkably wide-ranging survey of 20th-century portraiture, Portraits of a Century, to celebrate the millennium.

Gibson was born in the village of Goodrich, south Herefordshire, near the river Wye, and his father worked as a community officer in Hereford. Following Wychcrest preparatory school outside Malvern and a village school in rural Hampshire, he went as a chorister to New College choir school in Oxford, and, after his voice broke, the Royal Masonic school in Bushey, Hertfordshire. He read modern languages at Magdalene College, Cambridge and, after a year in Heidelberg, fine arts. After graduating in 1966, he took the museums course at Manchester University and worked briefly at Manchester City Art Gallery, before being recruited by Roy Strong to the staff of the National Portrait Gallery in 1968.

He began by looking after the late 18th-century portraits, then helped to establish the photographic collection, including the acquisition of Bill Brandt's archive. When Strong left to run the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974, Gibson assumed responsibility for Montacute, a collaboration with the National Trust that was important in making the National Portrait Gallery's reserve collection available to an audience outside London. He published a catalogue of the Clarendon collection of 17th-century portraits in 1978, but his interest, as evident from an exhibition of 20th-century portraits in the same year, was less in the history of portraiture than in its continuing practice.

Recognising Gibson's abilities, John Hayes, who took over from Strong as director, created a 20th-century department in 1983. It consisted of Gibson as its head, with Honor Clerk as his assistant. They were a quietly formidable combination, who built up the contemporary collection by an astute policy of acquisitions, often adventurous commissions, and a run of imaginative exhibitions, including Glyn Philpot, John Bellany and Lawrence of Arabia. In 1984, they opened a 20th-century gallery, which broke with tradition by including film and hanging portraits on rotating carousels.

Through the operation of the BP portrait award, they acquired an exceptionally good knowledge of young practitioners, making friends with many of them. Gibson particularly liked championing the underdog, and there will be many painters, not just the famous ones such as Maggi Hambling and Tom Phillips, who remain grateful for his encouragement. His personality, which combined wilful reticence with strong beliefs, is very evident in the BBC Omnibus television film that Patricia Wheatley made in 1993, marking the opening of the new ground-floor galleries. Asked what he thought of a particularly hideous portrait that the trustees were determined to acquire from a prominent donor, Gibson's face made the answer only too clear.

Hayes retired that same year, and a number of the trustees encouraged Gibson to consider himself as a candidate to be director. Although he was immensely popular with staff and always quietly thoughtful, neither he nor Malcolm Rogers, the other favoured internal candidate, were appointed. When I was unexpectedly selected instead, Gibson became, from 1994, an enormously considerate and loyal chief curator, guiding discussion in curatorial meetings with his encyclopedic knowledge, encouraging the acquisition of less obvious portraits, bringing his dog Ted into the office and responsible for a string of popular photographic exhibitions, including Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon and Bruce Weber. His last and most remarkable exhibition was his survey of 20th-century portraiture, based on one portrait for each year of the century, which demonstrated the wide-ranging, occasionally idiosyncratic, but invariably intelligent nature of his expertise.

In 2001, he took early retirement, turning to a part-time, voluntary post at London Zoo. This enabled him to care for his long-term partner, Tom Gligaroff, with whom he lived in a flat in Islington and a small house at Hempstead, Essex, where he played the church organ for more than 30 years. Before Tom died, they moved to Thaxted, but neither was able to enjoy the rural idyll for as long as they hoped. Gibson was appointed an OBE in 2001 and is survived by his sister, a nephew and niece, and Hitesh Mistry, the partner of his latter years.

• Robin Warwick Gibson, art curator, born 3 May 1944; died 9 August 2010


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June 24 2010

Summer of protest over BP arts sponsorship

Prestigious institutions defend links with oil firm as artists and green activists plan action

The summer season of events at Britain's most prestigious galleries and museums will be picketed by artists and green groups intent on portraying BP's arts sponsorship as a toxic brand.

Protests are planned next Monday by an eco-alliance styling itself "Good Crude Britannia" at Tate Britain's celebration of its 20-year association with the international oil conglomerate.

Climate change activists, artists and musicians opposed to the fossil fuel industry are determined to highlight BP's link to the arts in the context of the company's international embarrassment over the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the main recipients of BP's corporate largesse – the Royal Opera House, Tate Galleries, British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery – today issued a joint statement defending the connection and signalling their determination to preserve the commercial relationship.

The calls for cultural institutions to distance themselves from the oil industry comes at a time when government spending on the arts is about to be slashed amid efforts to cut public debt.

Many of Europe's leading artists, donors and cultural supporters are expected to be greeted at the glittering annual Tate summer party by Lord Brown of Madingley, chair of the Tate and former head of BP.

The planned demonstration next Monday follows protests this week by a group of artists calling themselves the Greenwash Guerrillas, who distributed leaflets outside the National Portrait Gallery at a BP-sponsored arts event. Greenpeace campaigners followed up with an "alternative exhibition" at a private viewing at the gallery.

The oil company has refused to divulge how much money it donates to the arts in Britain but it is thought, along with Shell, to be one of the most generous donors. In 2005 the figure was estimated to be more than £1m a year. BP also sponsors the Almeida theatre, the National Maritime museum, and the Science and Natural History museums.

"Organisations like the National Portrait Gallery help shape public attitudes towards the big issues of the day and if the gallery is serious about climate change then the sponsorship deal with BP has got to end," said Robin Oakley, Greenpeace's campaigns director.

In a separate development, musicians including Lady Gaga, Korn, Disturbed, Godsmack, Creed, and the Backstreet Boys said they planned to boycott BP on their national tours this year.

"It is absurd that the Tate should be sponsored by a company that is as irresponsible and polluting as BP," said Matthew Herbert, an electronic artist and composer who will headline the jazz stage at Glastonbury this weekend.

The oil industry has been a target for artists and activists for many years. Shell was widely boycotted in the 1990s for its involvement in the Nigerian government's decision to hang the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Last month a group called Liberate Tate entered the gallery's main turbine hall and released dozens of black balloons attached to dead fish in protest against the Gulf oil spill. Gallery staff had to shoot the balloons down with air rifles.

The press opening of the BP Portrait Awards was gatecrashed this week by a film crew from the Don't Panic collective who distributed wine glasses filled with thick black liquid symbolising the spill.

"In the past Imperial Tobacco used to sponsor the portrait awards," said Heydon Prowse, one of Don't Panic's film-makers, "then it was considered no longer acceptable. Perhaps the same should be considered now for BP given its attitude to regulation and tar sands."

The Tate gallery said it had an ethics committee which regularly reviewed its sponsorship deals. "BP is one of the most important sponsors of the arts in the UK supporting Tate as well as several other leading cultural institutions. Tate works with a wide range of corporate organisations and generates the majority of its funding from earned income and private sources. The Board and Ethics committee regularly review compliance with the policy," it said.

The National Portrait Gallery said: "The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 21st year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them."

A joint statement – from the Tate, Opera House, British Museum and Portrait Gallery – added: "The income generated through corporate partnerships is vital to the mixed economy of successful arts organisations and enables each of us to deliver a rich and vibrant cultural programme.

"We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience."

Suggestions that the massive bills being shouldered by BP for the clean up operation in the Gulf might force it to scale back on its support for the arts were dismissed by the company. Many of the deals are subject to long-term contractual agreements. Abandoning them would generate adverse publicity at a sensitive time.

"Everyone has a right to protest," a BP spokesman said, "but we feel sad they would choose to do so since we are doing the best we can to deal with a difficult situation.

"In the States, we have offered grants for research on the impact of the oil and detergents and there are people looking to get that sponsorship. I'm not aware of any arts institutions in the USA or the UK withdrawing [from sponsorship deals]."

Maurice Davies, of the Museums Association, which represents UK galleries and museums, doubted that any institution would immediately disown BP given the firm's record of sustained commitment to the arts. "Museums make judgements about who is a suitable sponsor," he said. "No one would take [money] from tobacco firms or arms companies. BP has a long and distinguished record of sponsorship. No one will rush to judgment on a company that has been a loyal supporter for such a long time. I don't hear a national clamour for BP petrol stations to be shut down."


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June 23 2010

Full frontal

Preview the entries to this year's BP Portrait awards, before they go on show at National Portrait Gallery



June 22 2010

BP's beleaguered Tony Hayward disappears from view

Whether he was really seen on a yacht at Cowes is debated – but there was no sign of him on dry land as oil bosses met at a London congress

After Saturday's ill-advised attendance at a sailing event at Cowes, complete with disputed photographs that may or may not have shown him on board his yacht, Tony Hayward might be excused for resolving to keep his head down.

But the beleaguered BP chief executive's position came under renewed pressure tonight after he failed to show up at a gathering of the oil industry, having also ceded day-to-day control of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Shares in BP touched a new 13-year low after Hayward delegated a keynote speech to his chief of staff, Steve Westwell. He also cancelled a scheduled appearance at the National Portrait Gallery in London tonight where he was due to open an awards ceremony.

By dodging the World National Oil Companies Congress in London, Hayward avoided coming face-to-face with several Greenpeace protesters.

They guaranteed more bad publicity for BP by briefly halting Westwell's speech to urge an audience of oil experts and energy ministers to break their oil dependency.

"Assembled guests – because BP is incapable of telling you the truth, I'm going to tell you what you need to know," Greenpeace's Emma Gibson said, shortly after Westwell had begun by apologising for Hayward's absence.

"We need to speed up progress and make a push to end the oil age," Gibson added, before she and fellow activist Katie Swan were removed from the stage by security, along with a banner which read "Go Beyond Petroleum".

BP blamed Hayward's no-show on his busy schedule. But the company refused to discuss his whereabouts, which added to speculation that he might already be meeting with the Kremlin to discuss BP's future. Its Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, is responsible for a quarter of its production.

Amid the uncertainty BP shares fell to 328p, virtually half the value when the Deepwater rig caught fire and sank.

Security had appeared tight at The Grange St Paul's hotel today but Greenpeace managed to reach the conference room by the simple, if expensive, tactic of buying tickets, and went ahead with the protest even though Hayward was not present.

"We wanted to use the opportunity to speak to BP and push it to change things. BP shouldn't be drilling in deep water and it shouldn't extract oil from the Canadian tar sands," Swan told the Guardian after she and Gibson were released by hotel security staff.

Swan ,said she was concerned about the environmental and economic damage caused by the spill. "It looks like irreparable damage has been done. People's lives will have been changed forever," she said.

Gibson said BP was in "severe trouble" because it had not listened to activists, and had instead pushed on with increasingly risky projects.

"If they had heeded our advice over many years about the need to deliver genuine renewable energy sources, they would not be facing a $40bn (£24bn) disaster today," Swan said.

Even before the conference began today, the environmental movement was taking the opportunity to lobby Big Oil. About 200 Climate Camp activists marched to the hotel complete with a samba band on Monday night and held a mock trial of the industry for its actions around the world.

Shares in BP ended the day down 4.3% at 334.2p, their lowest close since the crisis began.

Hayward, whose PR gaffes have added to the recent criticism of BP, has now given control of the Gulf clean-up to Bob Dudley, BP's American director. City analysts are speculating over how long Hayward can continue as chief executive. "He will remain at the helm for the near term but ultimately, this fiasco might prove career-shortening for him," a fund manager from one of BP's top 20 investors told Reuters.

Westwell said Hayward was "genuinely sorry" to miss the event, before insisting that BP was committed to fixing the disaster. "When the media have left the Gulf coast, we'll still be there helping the community recover. When the headlines are focused elsewhere, we'll still be cleaning up and dealing with claims for economic losses."

He signed off with a line from Abraham Lincoln which may yet serve as Hayward's epitaph. "I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end."

With or without Hayward, BP will remain under the shadow of huge compensation payments and fines – and possible prosecution.

Meanwhile, tonight, the oil companies congress is holding its gala dinner, with the promise of "fine wine, exquisite food and the company of some of the greatest minds in the energy business". For the oil industry, even with a temporary halt on new deepwater drilling, it remains business as usual.

Tony's travels

Where's Hayward been?

The BP chief executive flew to America shortly after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, with the loss of 11 lives. He returned to the UK for a flying visit in May to celebrate his birthday, and came back to the UK again last week following his savaging by Congress on Thursday. Spending Saturday yachting at Cowes proved the latest in a series of blunders.

Where's he now?

BP refuses to say, arguing that it never reveals its chief executive's location – even when he has abandoned a keynote speech at the last minute.

Where should he be?

In Russia, for a meeting with president Dmitry Medvedev, who has admitted he fears that BP could be destroyed by this crisis.

Reassuring the City about the company's long-term prospects would also be wise, as they face up to a dividend freeze.


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May 26 2010

The ties have it: Jon Snow portrait marks anchor's anniversary

National Portrait Gallery exhibits painting to mark newsman's 20th year presenting Channel 4 News

A portrait commissioned to mark Jon Snow's 20th anniversary as presenter of Channel 4 News, complete with one of his trademark technicolour ties, went on display today at the National Portrait Gallery.

The double portrait, by John Keane, shows an unusually stern and contemplative Snow; in the background is a blurred rendering of him as he appears on television, complete with tie. Channel 4 has lent it for four months to the portrait gallery.

Snow's career in journalism began in 1973 as a reporter for Independent Radio News. In 1976 he moved to ITN, where he served as diplomatic editor and Washington correspondent. He has been the anchorman for Channel 4 News since 1989, while continuing to report on major news stories.

He won a Bafta in 2005, and was named Journalist of the Year in 2006 by the Royal Television Society.

The artist John Keane worked as a waiter and domestic cleaner. The territory he has explored in his career as a painter has often overlapped with Snow's own, and he was the official war artist in the 1991 Gulf war. His portraits of the late Mo Mowlam and the trade unionist Bill Morris are part of the NPG permanent collection.

The director of the gallery, Sandy Nairne, said: "Jon Snow by John Keane brings a much loved figure from television into the world of art, to striking effect."


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May 21 2010

Into the unknown

After a decade of scaling new heights, the UK's arts institutions have been bracing themselves for drastic cuts. This week culture secretary Jeremy Hunt gave his inaugural speech. We asked leading figures for their response

Charles Saumarez Smith

Royal Academy

Given the disastrous state of the public finances, Jeremy Hunt's strategy is sensible: reassure the arts community by heaping praise on the achievements of the last 10 years; lever in extra public funding by restoring the lottery to its original purposes; and then do everything that can be done to encourage private philanthropy. Since the Royal Academy is in the unusual position of not receiving any public funding, other than benefiting from government indemnity, this strategy suits us well. However, there are two issues relating to private philanthropy which he did not address. The first is the mean-spirited regulations that govern benefits to donors. These mean that if, for example, someone gave money to support our Palladio exhibition, we could not invite him or her to dinner for fear of contravening the gift aid regulations. This is ridiculous. Minor benefits oil the wheels of private philanthropy. The second is the exact nature of the tax incentives which encourage banks in most European countries (for example, Belgium, Spain and Italy) to sponsor major exhibitions. Blockbuster shows are an underestimated part of the arts economy and have a big impact on cultural tourism. He should do all he can to support them.

Dominic Cooke

Royal Court Theatre

I was encouraged to hear that Jeremy Hunt, in his inaugural speech as culture secretary, cited Jerusalem as an example of how subsidising our cultural life is one of the best investments we can make in this country.

I do hope, however, that the new government will recognise that artistic excellence isn't achieved overnight. While some plays can be written in a few weeks or months, many, such as Jerusalem, are the result of years of work; and it is only with the intervention of a continued, sustained and appropriate investment in the arts that great art such as this will ever see the light of day. I look forward to discussing with Hunt the potentially disastrous effect that the US philanthropic funding culture could have on the UK, severely reducing opportunities for playwrights to be produced.

My fear is that the government will privilege the short-term kudos of the Olympics above the long-term nourishment of sustained arts investment. Subsidised theatre is the research-and-development wing of the UK's thriving creative industries. At the Royal Court, we run 10 courses for emerging writers each year, plus an international residency. Many of these writers, such as Polly Stenham (That Face, Tusk Tusk), go on to be produced in other theatres across Britain and the world. A few, such as Lucy Prebble (Enron, Secret Diary of a Call Girl), create high-quality television series that are successfully exported. Some, such as Joe Penhall, go on to write Hollywood movies (The Road). Several are studied at GCSE and A level. The directors, designers and actors we nurture become the lifeblood of the commercial theatre, which is a prime draw for tourism in the UK.

My one request is that the government facilitates new-writing theatres to continue making a valuable contribution to British life.

Robert Robson

The Lowry

Nick Clegg stated prior to entering into coalition that his party would like to see the arts protected from spending cuts and, in his inaugural speech, Jeremy Hunt has promised more lottery funding and a drive to increase philanthropic giving, both of which would be welcome and potentially beneficial.

However, the reality is that, as the culture secretary conceded, savings will almost certainly be required of the arts sector, and one would wish to remind the government that, in these circumstances, it is usually the artistically adventurous and ambitious projects that suffer most. There tends to be less visiting international work in tough financial times – certainly in respect of drama and dance, but also in the visual arts. Would we wish our cultural life and the picture we present of it to the world to become narrower, more mainstream, more inward looking, especially in the years leading up to the Olympics?

The reach of the arts in the UK hasbeen steadily increasing and improving with each passing year of late, including genuine engagement with some of our more disadvantaged communities. At the Lowry, we participate in the Centre for Advanced Training and Youth Dance England initiatives, which offer young people across the country and from a variety of backgrounds the opportunity to take part, and gain high-quality training, in dance. One can only hope that the funding of schemes such as these, providing access and skills development for young people, is sustained.

One request: I'd simply ask that, in any decisions about arts funding, organisations that balance artistic ambition with managing their finances responsibly are looked upon favourably.

Nicholas Hytner

National Theatre

Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey are genuinely enthusiastic about their brief. They have been explicit in their belief that a flourishing arts scene is an essential part of a civilised society. They understand that by investing in the arts, they stimulate the creative economy – by common consent the most successful and fastest growing sector of the economy as a whole.

So I hope that they will be passionate advocates for us as the new government addresses the deficit. I hope that they will point out to the treasury that for much less than one thousandth part of total government expenditure, they create not just well-being but jobs; that for the pittance saved by cutting a few percentage points from our budget, the damage caused would be disproportionately savage.

I hope they will take a leaf out of FDR's book: the US Federal Art, Theatre and Music Projects were vibrantly successful components of the New Deal and the conquest of the great depression. Actually, they could look closer to home: at the start of the New Labour administration, when spending was tight, Chris Smith pushed through an arts funding package that has led directly to an explosion of creativity and confidence, and an international reputation second to none.

I hope they fight for the money to make their jobs worth doing, because it's only with the money (a drop in the ocean though it may be) that they'll be able to do anything. I think they get it – I hope I'm right.

Iwona Blazwick

Whitechapel Gallery

I'm delighted that the new government has made a strong commitment to the arts, promising us sustained support at arm's length; offering us a foundation for funding but the freedom to produce a programme of great artists and educational projects.

The economic benefits of the UK's major museums and galleries alone are estimated to be £1.5bn per year – a figure that cannot be ignored.

Josie O'Rourke

Bush Theatre

One of the most appealing and canny virtues of arts in this country is our encouragement of new people. In my field our apprenticeships, both formal and informal, seek out and kickstart the next generation.

I've just come back from directing in America, where our assistant director, a brilliant and talented man, was older than me. This wasn't because he'd come to directing late, or underachieved in any way, but because, since graduating from college, he had been on the regular and dispiritingly slow climb to a career in the unsubsidised theatre. Lack of subsidy holds back the new and the young. In the past 10 years, I've grown through a traineeship at the Donmar, an apprenticeship at the Royal Court and an associateship at Sheffield into being the artistic director of the Bush Theatre, where we're working to identify the writers and artists of tomorrow. The opportunities I've been afforded, and can now make available to others, are a clear argument for the confident funding of the arts that has taken place in this country since I began as an assistant director 10 years ago.

It's this generous and incautious spirit that makes the arts in this country exceptional. If we break this virtuous circle now, we'll lose a generation.

Daniel Evans

Sheffield theatres

There were no surprises in Hunt's speech. Irrespective of which party won the election, cuts were going to be inevitable in every area of government spending – and the arts are no exception. Accordingly, those of us who work in the arts have long fastened our seatbelts, though we still don't know exactly how bumpy the ride will be. While it's good to hear that lottery funding for the arts will eventually increase to 20%, the faith in (and encouragement to rely on) income from philanthropy is potentially very worrying, especially given the gradual disintegration of individual giving in the US. It's all well and good proselytising about how wonderful an extra £5m in philanthropic donations would be for the National Theatre, but reports show that half of London's arts organisations showed a drop in their income from such streams in the past year. It's hard to allay suspicions that any emphasis on philanthropy is a foreboding of the end of government funding for the arts in the future. However, cutting administration costs seems smart, if it means that the savings can be spent on the art itself. There is a remaining, logistical question: how will the coalition collaborate in the sphere of the arts? Here in Sheffield, we've heard the deputy prime minister speak passionately about the arts. Indeed, we know he acted at university and that Samuel Beckett is his hero. It would be good to know that this passion and belief in the intrinsic value of the arts is informing the decision-making process. Finally, I cannot hide the fact that a part of me is pleased that there is at least one surprise in Hunt's appointment: we now have a culture minister who seems to enjoy going to the theatre.

Tony Hall

Royal Opera House

It's important to recognise that a decade of sustained investment in arts and culture has made Britain's cultural life the envy of the world and a significant contributor to the UK economy – £5bn per year. The global spotlight will be on us in 2012 and we can showcase just how culturally rich this country is.

This sustained government support has enabled organisations of all sizes to have a robust foundation on which to build, to become cultural entrepreneurs and find new revenue streams.

If there have to be savings, the question for both government and cultural organisations is: how do you make the savings without hitting the funds available to frontline arts organisations? It would be such a waste of what has been achieved to take money from where it counts – on stages and in concert halls and galleries.

Three things in Jeremy Hunt's speech gave me particular encouragement. First, he announced plans to restore the lottery to its rightful place funding arts and culture. Second, he talked of practical ways in which this government will encourage philanthropy. We look forward to conversations as to how this can best be achieved. Already the growth in cultural philanthropy in this country has enabled arts organisations to increase the quality and reach of their work. Finally, his proposal for longer-term financial arrangements. At the Royal Opera House we schedule up to five years ahead, and to have that sense of security would enable us to deliver even better value for money.

Seventy-six per cent of the population now actively participates in the arts; 96% say they will attend again. Arts projects have been proven to play an integral role in regeneration projects. We can see the difference the arts make – aspirations are raised, communities come together and lives are changed. This success story must continue.

Ian Brown

Yorkshire Playhouse

I want to be reasonably optimistic. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats both seem to recognise the importance of the creative industries and the value, both economically and socially, that the arts bring to this country. Jeremy Hunt seems to be passionate about maintaining and supporting the creative sector. However, I have some fears. Hunt has made it very clear that the arts will not be exempt from the impending massive spending cuts. A 20% cut to the sector could do enormous damage and make very little dent in the deficit.

I would like to remind our new government that there is no real substitute for public investment in the arts. That as attractive as private investment might be, philanthropists are thin on the ground outside London, particularly in the current financial climate. As for the idea of endowments, I cannot see how these could pay the kind of interest that would keep a theatre open. If grants become dependent on matched private funding, then the success of the last 10 years will soon be decimated and theatres closed.

I am reassured by his announcement that lottery funding is to be restored to the arts. This is vital to the growth and development of the industry over the next 20 years. There is a real possibility of a "double whammy" of cuts which could have a very serious impact on cultural industries. Therefore it is vital that local authorities and Arts Council England remain in close contact.

My big wish is that the government trusts the Arts Council to deliver and has faith in its knowledge and expertise. I am all for cutting spending where it is not required, such as on unnecessary administration costs and unaccountable quangos, and possibly trimming the cultural Olympiad (I don't think the country expects or wants an Olympic cultural event we cannot afford).

Finally I would like to say to Jeremy Hunt: remember that the arts are something the UK does brilliantly. It may also be an important part of keeping our society together through these tough times.

Dominic Dromgoole

Shakespeare's Globe

Even from the perspective of an unsubsidised theatre, it would seem perilous to the point of lunacy to lessen the amount of overall subsidy in our culture. The Globe manages to run an ambitious programme of Shakespeare and new plays, as well as a far-reaching educational operation, without a single penny of subsidy, yet all the skills, experience and passion that we build our achievements on would not exist without the subsidised network of theatres. It is long proven that the creative industries know how to turn a penny into a pound with more flair and efficiency than almost any other, an uncanny ability which they exhibit both in their own theatres and in the national economy. If the new coalition wants to be sophisticated about how it cuts, it would seem injudicious to cut in an arena that takes so little and gives so much.

Questions should be asked about where the subsidy goes, and they should be rigorous. Are we spreading money all around the country without bias? Are we satisfying all audiences, including, most crucially, those who are already interested, and not just the nonexistent fantasy audience of the Arts Council's imagination? Are we putting the money into the art and the artists, and not just into bloated, staff-happy infrastructures of arts administrators? And are we funding real risk and real adventure and real, ugly, awkward dissent, as we should be, and not spending large amounts on institutions which should be perfectly commercially viable on their own? To shy away from such questions at a time when others are having to make painful and difficult sacrifices would be self-indulgent. But if the process of asking and answering such questions did not reveal to any sane, unprejudiced mind the necessity and the virtue of subsidy, then I would eat my desk.

Liz Forgan

Arts Council England

The arts earn our living, but for 17p a week per head they also lift our spirits, challenge our dullness and make sense of the world. We won't get through the next five years as a sane nation without a functioning creative life, and public investment in artists and arts organisations is essential to that.

My fear is that a desperate policy of flat percentage cuts everywhere will do fatal damage to the new, the brave, the difficult and the unpopular. The government is determined to act quickly, but if there is no time to be skilful in the way we make savings we will be guilty of unnecessary atrocities. And if public money dries up it will be 10 times harder to sustain the support of the private sector, which is our essential partner. The arts have survived the recession extraordinarily well so far, thanks to this plural funding system and their own resourcefulness. Two years before a great Olympic festival is not the time to deal them a fatal blow.

My request would be to each and every member of the government to go out and actually experience an arts event, preferably somewhere that is suffering from industrial decline, poverty, depression, alienation, or social dislocation, and preferably in the company of someone under 12.

Jude Kelly

Southbank Centre

The cultural sector judges its government representatives on their knowledge, enthusiasm and willingness to speak boldly about why arts and heritage are fundamental to our society – and, when necessary, to thump the table to be heard.

Most politicians find it difficult to "come out" about their love of and belief in the arts, despite living in one of the most culturally active nations in the world. So the fact that Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey were effusive about culture while in opposition – and talked the talk so conscientiously – has won them many friends. We want Hunt and his team to argue for people's human right to participate in the cultural life of their community and to enjoy the arts. This should be a major consideration for the coalition government as it debates the ambition and practical scope of the "big society".

Victoria Sharp

London Music Masters

Jeremy Hunt's firm expression of commitment to the arts on all levels, from local to national, is enormously encouraging. In particular, greater support for high-quality grassroots educational efforts will provide the early inspiration which translates to lifetime aspiration in the broadest sense.

I am heartened to see the significant focus on voluntary and community efforts. These are vital in the undertakings made by many smaller arts organisations, such as the Bridge Project of London Music Masters, which provides music education in south London primary schools. Nurtured students and their communities of today are the audiences and community leaders of tomorrow. I have also seen how larger arts entities, such as the Southbank Centre and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, work successfully in educational partnerships with smaller, local organisations to this very important end. Equally exciting is the indication that more provision, not less, will be given to the arts. The nod to the enhancement of gift aid is a step in the right direction. However, a more creative approach to developing all-important philanthropic support would be a revolutionary development.

John Leighton

National Galleries of Scotland

The arts and heritage are devolved matters, so it falls to government in Edinburgh to show the lead in questions of policy and funding for the arts in Scotland. Nevertheless, the direction taken by the new administration in London is bound to have a profound impact on the arts sector north of the border. Will the new coalition government understand that we invest in, rather than spend on, art, culture and heritage in the UK?

The development of a vibrant museums sector has been one of the great British success stories of recent decades. The total worth of museums and galleries to the Scottish economy alone has been calculated at over £800m every year. With evidence of the benefits to urban and rural regeneration, of benefits to education, health and well-being, ministers, politicians and community leaders are increasingly aware that museums can be a part of the solution to many of the pressing social and economic challenges that we face in Scotland today.

Museums across the UK have been successful in attracting enormous support from the private sector. However, it is public subsidy that unlocks private support, and the whole-hearted commitment of government has been essential to attracting this extra investment. The Conservative arts manifesto was thin and unconvincing in this regard, with, for example, vague indications of a new emphasis on "endowments". The private sector will not rush to fill the void created by diminishing subsidies. The balance is fragile and the threat of a spiral of decline is not an idle one.

One request? Don't ignore the regions. In common with the rest of the UK, England is blessed with a diverse and high-quality museums sector that has been nurtured in recent years through excellent schemes such as the "Renaissance in the regions" funding. Commit to extending this.

James Grieve, George Perrin

Paines Plough

I'm not sure we've ever had a deputy prime minister who has performed in Krapp's Last Tape before now, so that's a positive omen. Nick Clegg's formative board-treading has left him in thrall to Beckett, and I hope that might signal an appreciation of the vibrant and flourishing contemporary playwriting culture that can confidently claim to be the best in the world. Trailblazing young talents such as Mike Bartlett, Alexi Kaye Campbell, Lucy Prebble and Polly Stenham are valuable exports to the commercial and international markets – all of them nurtured by the subsidised sector. Cuts to public spending are essential and unavoidable, and in Jeremy Hunt's pre-election words the arts sector will need to "take its share of the pain". But we urge the new government to be mindful that arts subsidy is the reason we're able to create outstanding theatre and to develop Beckett's heirs. As an industry, we have to help ourselves, too, and the political coalition is perhaps symbolic of a new spirit of unity. Here at Paines Plough we're co-producing this year with 20 other companies, we've started to co-commission writers with other companies and we're looking at creating a new small-scale touring network. All of which means we can make our public subsidy stretch much further. I'd urge Hunt to read Dominic Shellard's paper "Economic Impact Study of UK Theatre" (2004), which makes an incontrovertible case for the fiscal value of subsidised theatre in the UK. But the return on investment is not just financial. Hunt should ask Clegg about the life-long social and educational benefits of participating in theatre. It's up to the new coalition to sustain the UK's world-beating cultural offerings.

John Betty

ENO

The arts in the UK have for decades boxed above their weight and continue to pay for themselves through revenue from tourism, exports and the leveraging of private funding. My hope is that quality and artistic vision will be rewarded and organisations that are reaching out to new audiences and producing innovative work can continue to do so. Public subsidy should primarily support work that would otherwise not happen. It should enable organisations and artists to put their heads above the parapet, challenge their art forms and, in ENO's case, build relationships with smaller organisations such as Punchdrunk, Complicité, Fabulous Beast and Improbable.

My fear is that Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey will underestimate the fragility of our big arts organisations and their crucial role in nurturing talent. Please continue to talk to us about this and how we are producing value for money. See for yourselves how we are very reliant on the goodwill and passion of gifted individuals. There is no fat; nothing to spare. Cutting will mean that the future Anthony Minghellas, Stephen Daldrys and Simon McBurneys of this world – all having learnt their trade in the UK subsidised arts sector – will simply not have the opportunity to flourish.

Sandy Nairne

National Portrait Gallery

Like everyone in the arts and cultural sector, I hope the new government can fully recognise the huge positive economic and educational impact of our work. Even moderate cuts in budgets would significantly reduce what we are able to offer to the public. I want to see the new government loudly celebrating the successes of the arts sector – subsidised and commercial, specialist and popular, alike. At the same time it is important to promote and maintain an appropriate degree of critical response, whether coming from young people, general audiences, arts professionals, or ministers themselves.

I would ask that the efforts going into the Cultural Olympiad and festival around 2012 are extended beyond the Games to give us major cultural development towards 2020.

David Pickard

Glyndebourne

I am delighted that Jeremy Hunt has recognised the importance of a mixed economy of private and public funding for the arts. This is central to Glyndebourne's business model. We could not maintain the artistic standards of our festival, which receives no public subsidy, without the support of our enlightened patrons and donors. On the other hand, funding from the Arts Council is crucial to our work in reaching new audiences through touring and pioneering education projects. The prospect of tax breaks for donors is welcome, but we do also have to accept that some of the most important and exciting work in the arts will never attract private support.

If I have one wish for the future, it is that Hunt's obvious enthusiasm will help to boost the arts higher up the political agenda, reflecting the contribution we can make to the broader government priorities of health and education. Let's celebrate the arts rather than apologise for them.


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April 26 2010

Early Bridget Riley works to go on show

Fifteen life-drawings reveal origins of op art founder's later abstract work

Bridget Riley is known as the founder of the op art movement, the queen of austere stripes and rigorously abstract experiments in form and structure.

So it is something of a surprise to find that as a young artist, she was dedicated to drawing from life – and it is 15 of these beautiful works, some of which look almost as if they could have been made in Renaissance Italy, that go on display for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery next month.

It was in 1961 that she abandoned figuration for her abstract works, initially in black and white only, moving on to using colour in the late 1960s. But, according to Paul Moorhouse, 20th-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, the figurative works contain the seeds of her later abstract work. "People think of her in terms of op-art – squares and circles and curves – and they think it doesn't have a connection with the outside world. But in a wider sense, all her work has its roots in observation, in the world, in people.

"Abstraction for her was not a break; it was the culmination of the disciplines she learned at the outset, of hundreds of hours working on the human form."

He said "an obsession with structure" is detectable in the pencil portraits as much as the later abstract works, and that in her figurative work one can see "a progressive distillation and paring down" so that she starts to use "tone and line as things in themselves, and begins to focus on pure expression and structure rather than just using the pencil to describe".

Riley has said of the life-drawings: "I learnt to look for the structure, for the action or movement of the pose, the distribution of weight, the proportion of the body, the light-to-dark tonal scale. But the most important thing was to retain the first impressions of the whole.

"To this day this particular knowledge forms the basis of everything I do in the studio."


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March 23 2010

Portait of a neglected painter

National Portrait Gallery to stage exhibition of works by Hungarian-born society portraitist whose style fell out of fashion

John Singer Sargent was reputed to have said: "Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend." The same could not be said of Philip de László, his successor as the leading society portraitist in Britain from 1907 until his death 30 years later.

De László, born in Hungary, was flattering and prolific, painting 5,000 portraits during his British career and capturing the likenesses of royalty and the landed gentry. He was the last of a long line of portraitists in the grand style, a tradition stretching back to Van Dyck.

Over the past 50 years, however, his work has been written off as glib and facile. When he died in 1937, the role of the British aristocracy was soon to change forever after the second world war. In a transformed UK, his works fell out of fashion. Now, however, the National Portrait Gallery, in London, is to mount the first exhibition of De László's work since his death.

One of the highlights will be a portrait of the Queen Mother, painted in 1925, when she was the Duchess of York, which the Hungarian Pesti Hírlap newspaper praised as "harmoniously expressing the winsomeness of the duchess's personality".

Another will be a portrait of US society beauty the Duchess of Portland. Her husband, who commissioned the painting, was thrilled with the results, writing: "It has a ray of heaven illuminating in her face the charming qualities of her soul."

Paul Moorhouse, the 20th century curator at the gallery, said De László was ripe for reappraisal. "He is a much more sophisticated and complex painter than he has been given credit for. He was incredibly good at what he did. He was prolific, and that very facility has caused a certain amount of suspicion. In his day, he was celebrated for being able to capture a likeness in two hours, which has been taken as a mark of superficiality."Moorhouse said De László's "brilliance can now be seen for what it is. He was an excellent colourist, a wonderful craftsman and hugely accomplished".

De László was born in 1869 and moved to England in 1907. He was interned during the last years of the first world war, despite a petition in his defence started by the writer Jerome K Jerome.

The De László works will be on displayat the National Portrait Gallery from Saturday until 5 September.


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March 17 2010

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