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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

BP Portrait Award: The stories behind the sitters

A surreal portrait of an artist's mother drinking tea scooped first prize

The annual BP Portrait Award exhibition opens this week in London, offering visitors the chance to see the very best contemporary portraiture from across the globe.

Held at the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, the Portrait Award hands out prizes to exceptional artists worth a total of £74,000 (Dh364,000).

The National attended a preview of the exhibition and spoke with the winners about the stories behind their portraits.

Miriam Escofet - An Angel At My Table

Miriam Escofet’s surreal portrait of her mother won first prize in the BP Portrait Award, netting the artist £35,000 as well as a gallery commission at the National Portrait Gallery worth £7,000.

Barcelona-born Escofet painted her mother Alma Escofet in a domestic scene sat at her kitchen table having tea. But at a second glance the viewer can see the plates and cups in front of her appear to be moving.

BP Portrait Award winner Miriam Escofet poses with her portrait - An Angel At My Table. Jorge Herrera
BP Portrait Award winner Miriam Escofet poses with her portrait - An Angel At My Table. Jorge Herrera

“I got the idea of painting her at the kitchen table because it is where she spends most of her life and she loves drinking tea,” the London-based artist said, adding that she had wanted to paint her mother for a long time but had struggled to find the right idea.

“The movement of the objects is trying to suggest a sense of time moving around my mother to emphasise that she is the still point around which everything else turns,” she explained.

“In our emotional world I think that is what mother figures are the harbour- that thing that is always there.”

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Escofet’s painting of her mother differs from others in that it shows a dignified and beautiful older woman - Mrs Escofet is 85-years-old.

“There is a slight tendency to paint older people in a tragic way in modern portraiture and actually there is something very beautiful about age, reading all that history of their face,” she said. “It is not tragic at all.”

Rosie Broadley, one of this year’s judges and curators, praised the portrait for showing both technical skill alongside a “supernatural” touch with the moving objects.

“It captured all of our imaginations,” she said. “The moving objects are a very subtle touch, which made it for us.”

Felicia Forte - Time Traveller, Matthew Napping

Felicia Forte’s portrait of her boyfriend napping scooped second prize and awarded the Detroit-based artist £12,000.

Forte had been working on a body of work for a residency in a studio but had yet to select her subject for her largest piece.

“I decided to go home, rest and rethink it,” she explained. “And I walked in and that was the scene and I immediately thought: ‘Oh my gosh, I know what I am going to put on that canvas’.”

The scene Forte found was her boyfriend Matthew DeJong, an illustrator, having an afternoon sleep.

Second prize winner Felicia Forte with her portrait- Time Traveller, Matthew Napping. Jorge Herrera
Second prize winner Felicia Forte with her portrait- Time Traveller, Matthew Napping. Jorge Herrera

The painting was praised for its use of contrasting colour as the blue light from the window meets the red light from the lamp.

“There was a red bulb in the lamp because we had run out of regular light bulbs that week,” Forte said. “It was two or three in the afternoon and there was a north light coming in, so very blue and very red. It was all accidental but it makes the colours of the wall look amazing.”

Broadley said the portrait’s “intimate and personal nature” made it feel very special.

“There is something very intimate about the scene which could only happen between two people who know each other very well.

“It is unique to those people as Felicia is the only person who would have seen Matthew napping,” she added.

Zhu Tongyao- Simone

Third prize winner Zhu Tongyao with his portrait- Simone. Jorge Herrera
Third prize winner Zhu Tongyao with his portrait- Simone. Jorge Herrera

Chinese artist Zhu Tongyao won third prize for his portrait of Simone, the son of his neighbours from when he spent time studying in Italy.

First-time entrant Tongyao, who was awarded £10,000 for his portrait, said he was extremely happy to have been selected for the prestigious prize.

The portrait depicts Simone in modern dress with two churches in the background, one American and one Italian, symbolising the nationalities of his father and mother respectively.

Ania Hobson - A Portrait of two Female Painters

BP Young Artist Award winner Ania Hobson with A Portrait of two Female Painters. Jorge Herrera
BP Young Artist Award winner Ania Hobson with A Portrait of two Female Painters. Jorge Herrera

Ania Hobson, 28, took home BP’s Young Artist Award and a prize fund of £9,000 for a portrait of herself and her sister-in-law and fellow artist, Stevie Dix.

The two women work in a studio together and the painting explores their relationship.

Hobson, who used an upward perspective to convey a feeling of confidence, said she wanted to “celebrate female artists”.

“I wanted to create a strong, bold statement. It looks almost quite standoff-ish.”

The BP Portrait Award 2018 exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery from June 14 to September 23.