BP Portrait Award 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery

‘Swallow’ by Alexandra Gardner, Oil on Linen

Sometimes I really do have to wonder at myself, when the questions that occur to me most frequently when I’m going around art exhibitions or galleries have little or nothing to do with the art.  I’m curious as to where the pieces have come from, or who owns them, or who made the decision to paint the walls that particular shade of red; things that have nothing to do with composition or choice of materials or scale.  It’s always something to do with a story, a puzzle or a near irrelevant observation.

So my irrelevant question about the Portrait Award 2012, currently nearing closure at the National Portrait Gallery revolves around how they choose the paintings to use on the publicity flyers, posters and the selection process for the works that are reproduced as postcards, and how, if at all, these relate to the judging system.

Now, I’m not claiming to have made an exhaustive, nor even remotely scientific study, but it seemed that there is very little overlap between the two, in fact only one work appears to have been selected by both the publicity department as likely to attract the public to the exhibition and the portraits selected by the judges as prize winners.

It’s curiosity, nothing more.  Maybe it’s something to do with copyright, or the willingness of the artist or subject to appear on the sides of buses, but if it’s been done on the basis of purely aesthetic grounds, I think my taste coincides more closely with that of the marketing team more closely than it does with the panel of judges.

Having said all of that, this year I enjoyed the exhibition more than I have in some previous years.  There are some extraordinary portraits on display, fulfilling that objective of portraiture to reveal something of the character of the subject, telling something of their story, and there were many there that I’d quite fancy meeting for a chat over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Leave a comment


  1. Swallow is beautiful, but uninviting to me re meeting for a drink.

    • I thought she’d be great for a gossip, but looks like she can keep a secret too. (She was my favourite of the ones available as postcards – there were others overlooked by both the prize givers and the PR team which I realise I have stayed in my memory longer…..)

  2. I’ve seen this exhibition too Rowena (some time ago) and I am also easily distracted by other things when I visit galleries. Watching the people visiting, for example, and overhearing their reactions to the pictures is fascinating. I agree with you and the marketing team on the choice of publicity images – neither the winner nor the runner-up would have pulled in the punters and were far from the best entries in my opinion, though what do I know? It’s as subjective as fiction.
    One of my favourites was the portrait of Northern Irish poet Michael Longley. I would love to have a drink with him although I would be totally overawed, so probably just as well it’s not likely to happen!

    • I think we’re in agreement about the prize winners – I really disliked the first prize work, but I did think the whole show was much better than last year’s, but then I don’t know anything about painting!


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