Last weekend I ventured to the Mall Galleries in London to view the Royal Society of Portrait Painters 2015 show which runs until 1st May. This year it also included a temporary, side exhibition called Inside Portraits (now closed), featuring the two most recent Bulldog Bursary winners Emma Hopkins and Sarah Jane Moon. This was designed to give the public an insight into the inner workings of producing a portrait and both artists were present – more about this in my next blog.
The main show was a delight, as a photographer who works predominantly with people I am always intrigued by the relationships which exist between the artist or photographer and the subject. Also as a photographer you rarely have the luxury of time to get to know your subject, so I was fascinated to read in the gallery information that broadly speaking between 2 and 8 sittings of 1.5 hours would be expected to produce a portrait, the number based on the medium, the artist and their method of work (some work just from a photograph).
I have visited many galleries over the years including numerous trips to the National Portrait Gallery, but this show felt different, somehow much more personal as many of the works were on loan from families who had commissioned the portraits. The size, shape and media where hugely varied and ranged from small personal sketches to ginormous boardroom paintings of wealthy businessmen behind shiny empty desks.
What surprised me most was how clear the connections were with the painter. Some works touched your heart as you felt the warmth of the person, that their gaze was purely for you, yet in others the families or individual looking out appeared uncomfortable or even (in my view) unhappy. Some had narrative alongside which help the viewer understand the motivations for the painting, others just left me wondering. Am I looking for too much clarity, the type of clarity you get with a portrait photograph, some of the painting were almost abstract in their representation of the person, some of the works definitely left me feeling uneasy.
Capturing an image either in photography or by a painter, feels to me like a huge responsibility, but unlike a painted portrait, a photographer can capture many moments in a sitting and the client can choose how they are portrayed. I wonder what happens if a sitter does not like the finished work of art? If perhaps the wrong moment or expression was chosen? I have often commented on the subjectivity of image capture, this is especially relevant when photographing children. I can look at a photograph and see a well composed, well taken image of a child with a great expression on their face, I can show this image to the parent who may love it or may say they don’t recognise that representation of their child, but the next image taken within seconds is perfect. I think the challenges facing a portrait painter must be huge.
There is a whistle stop tour of the show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCFOCLLJHvk
In my next blog I will share my meeting with the lovely Emma Hopkins 2014/15 Bulldog Bursary winner.