Three hundred and eleven

Sam Waley-Cohen and Irilut

by James Stewart
BP Portrait Award 2012, National Portrait Gallery

2012’s BP Portrait Award seems to have taken the visual advice of the last year’s winner Wim Heldens (postcard 278), who took inspiration from the exquisite mastery of Dutch painting. The crowd this year seem to be similarly concerned with their craft in history; quality is high and there are far fewer ‘hyper-real’ portraits, compared to those who portray their sitters with a concern for realism only through a style that is forming of character. Taking inspiration from great artists of history is one of history’s tales in itself, a work’s success becomes a consequence of their admiration and acknowledgement and contemporary artists learning and building upon them only furthers them still. Like Heldens, many of 2012′s BP portrait artists were building. Gianluca Capaldo talks of nineteenth-century portraits whilst describing his approach to the full length nude of his fiancée, Nancy Fletcher looks to her Danish inspiration Christen Købke for her crisp and light composition, while Eileen Hogan approached her sitter Sir Paul Ruddock as the modern day financier whilst bearing in mind Sir Thomas Lawrence’s drawing of eighteenth-century financier Sir Francis Baring. Even the winner Aleah Chapin’s portrait – a compelling nude with a wonderfully expressive face – has the marbly and mottled skin of Titian. This historical grounding makes the experience of wandering through the exhibition all the more interesting, as new work is fuelled with visual memories. James Stewart’s portrait is clinically painted, caressing each detail of the horse with his accute brush strokes. The concern is Stubbs-esque, especially paired with the blankness of the background. However, more is made of design in Stewart’s portrait; his portrayal is not only about the horse, but about the perfect stance echoed between the rider and the animal – the balanced beauty of the composition as a whole. Standing back from the painting, there is something illustrative in its detail – from the 50s colouring to the mirroring of the two protaganists of the painting.

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