Nick Hackworth

BP Portrait Award 2006, National Portrait Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

In this, as in each of its 26 years, the BP Portrait Award deserves bitter sweet praise for stubbornly championing a dying cause.

A record submission of 1,113 entries has not helped. The 56 works on show incite the same sense of dull mediocrity familiar from previous years.

Save for a few flashes, the wound inflicted long ago by the invention of photography would be confirmed as fatal. Indeed to exhibit some of these works, presented as the best that we can now produce, a mere pebble’s throw from examples by Holbein and Titian seems a morbid act of unnecessary cruelty. Not that talent is absent here but the manner of its expenditure is telling.

This year’s winner, Andrew Tift, 38, like the last, Dean Marsh, is a competent draughtsman, has an eye for detail and is painstaking in his approach. Kitty, a triptych of small, monochromatic paintings of Kitty Garman, Lucien Freud’s first wife, ably captures the subject listening, about to speak and finally in posed profile. Evidently skilful, Kitty succeeds in imparting more than a hint of the sitter’s nature.

However the work’s visual language, in common with most of the competent paintings here, belongs to photography, from the photorealist style to the framing and composition.

Yet if portrait painting has a future, it is surely as a genre that revels in the material quality of paint, retreating to what is unique to itself. Old expressionist ambitions, to conjure some essential quality of the sitter with the self-conscious application of paint, make as much sense now as they did a century ago. But few here take the painterly route with any confidence.

Jonathan Yeo does so with a small study of Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry in transvestite mode, the work’s incompleteness adding poignancy to its psychological insight, while Bulgarian Sergio Ostroverhy’s portrait of firemen injects an engagingly, eccentric touch of Socialist Realism to the proceedings. But they are exceptions to a failing rule.

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