Every year, hundreds of people visit the Mall Galleries in London to view a diverse and exciting programme of exhibitions. From well-established artists to amateur painters, the Galleries host an abundance of different shows. Known for being Central London’s leading gallery for contemporary art, a whole range of visual arts can be viewed and purchased annually.
Run by the Federation of British Artists, the Mall Galleries gives individual artists and societies the opportunity to showcase their work. Established in 1961, FBA is a visual arts charity that comprises several of the UK’s leading art societies, including the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Royal Society of British Artists and the New English Arts Club. With each of these societies hosting an annual exhibition, the Mall Galleries becomes host to an eclectic range of artworks from all types of mediums: oil paintings, watercolours, pastels, prints, sculpture and so forth.
One of the more recent exhibitions, which opened for two weeks during May 2018, was curated by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Carefully selected by professionals, around 200 works by serious contemporary portrait painters of all stylistic approaches were there to be admired and appreciated, including various competition winners.
Now registered as a charity with Her Majesty The Queen as its Patron, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters was established in 1891 with painters such as Millais and Whistler as members. With the intention of promoting enjoyment and appreciation of the art of portraiture, it aims to encourage up-and-coming artists and develop new modes and perspectives of painting.
The past 500 years has seen portraiture at its most popular in Britain, beginning with the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hans Holbein and Van Dyck, the latter two famous for portraits of the monarchy. These painters have helped to illustrate English history and give us great insight into the upper classes during the Tudor, Stuart and Victorian era. In more recent years, portraits of the middle classes began to emerge followed by the working class, as contemporary artists began using their family and friends and models. Examples include paintings by Lucien Freud and David Hockney who were prominent during the 20th century.
Present day portrait painters have entered an “art for art’s sake” period where commisions for sittings are less common leaving artists to their own devices and experimentation. With so many past art movements to be influenced by, painters have far more scope to play with, rather than in the earlier years when a particular style was expected. As seen in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ exhibition, there is a huge range of techniques that not only portray a likeness of the sitter, express emotion and personal concerns as well.
There will come a day when these portraits of 2018 may be reflected back on in a similar vein to society’s appreciation of painters from the 16 and 1700s. Particularly in the case of well-known faces, such as Michael Noakes’ portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, some of these paintings will help to reveal what the people and lifestyle were like at the beginning of the 21st century (although, we also have photographs for that job). However, the majority of the paintings submitted to this exhibition were portraits of anonymous people, personally known by the artists, and therefore meaningless in terms of documenting history. On the other hand, they are a great way of studying different styles, techniques and talents of individual people.
Starting off the exhibition was an incredibly detailed portrait titled Sophia by the Spanish fine artist Miriam Escofet (b1967). An associate member of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Escofet describes herself as a contemporary figurative painter and has been painting ever since graduating from art school in 1991. Her work is inspired by classical painters, which can be seen in the smoothness of the brushstrokes that are virtually invisible in this hyper-realistic painting of a young woman. What makes the painting so remarkable, and arguably the best in the exhibition, is the attention to detail, particularly in the lace dress. It is almost as though one could reach out a hand and feel the material or stroke the hair. Sophia is a phenomenal piece of work, it is hard to believe it is a painting.
There were a few other extremely realistic portraits that took on the appearance of photographs rather than paintings. An example is Sandra Kuck’s (b1947) Yvonne in which a flawless young girl sits in front of an elaborately decorated background. In this painting, Kuck not only shows her talent for portraiture but displays her skill at working with intricate detail, delicate lighting and vibrant colours.
Although photorealistic portraits are awe-inspiring, the majority of the works included in the show were of a more impressionist nature. Neale Worley’s (b1962) small painting Ilea sits on the border between impressionism and realism. From a distance, the portrait could be mistaken for a photograph, however, up close the brush strokes are more visible. Similarly to Kuck, Worley is also extremely talented at capturing skin tone and the texture of the fabric in the background.
Some people confuse the concept of impressionism with surrealism but often these paintings still look realistic, however, with more obvious brush strokes. Although they could not be mistaken for a photograph, they provide a lifelike impression of the sitter. Alice Boggis-Rolfe‘s (b1990) highly commended Self Portrait with Brushes is produced with loose brushstrokes that concentrate more on the application of colour than the preciseness of the composition. Nonetheless, the final result is a faithful portrayal of the artist at work as seen through the reflection of a mirror.
Nneka Uzoigwe’s portrait of Fiona, on the other hand, is produced with more precise brushstrokes, yet still adopting an impressionistic approach. The model almost appears to be emerging from or fading into the dark background and looks ever so slightly blurred, resulting in an ethereal quality that most realistic paintings fail to achieve. Uzoigwe is mostly known for floral still lifes but she has managed to transfer her method of painting to portraiture to produce something as equally beautiful.
Toby Wiggins‘ Girl with a Ring may be more recognisable than other paintings in the exhibition since it was selected to be featured on the advertisements published online and in magazines. Wiggins studied at the Royal Academy Schools and is an established portrait painter and member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
“With every new sitter, I try to respond afresh to the repeated challenges that portraiture offers. I hope that my work is an honest expression of the particular individual(s), a translation of what I see and what I feel”
– Toby Wiggins
Girl with a Ring (stop looking at her hands, it is a lip ring) is more than just a portrait. It is full of unexpressed emotion and tension revealed through the contrast of the background with the blue dress, which leads the eye to the tense posture of the model. Although the girl appears to be attempting to suppress her true feelings, her wary facial expression and stance suggest a notion of unease.
Whilst the favoured medium of the exhibition tended to be oil paint or acrylics this was not everyone’s preference. Produced in monochrome, some artists opted for charcoal or etching for their portraits. The latter has reduced in popularity since the advent of digital art, so it was refreshing to come across an etching hidden amongst the numerous paintings. Bernadett Timko (b1992) is a figurative painter but chose to use the method of etching for her portrait of Franke. This allowed her to expressively draw the tightly curled hair and scratchy stubble, something that would have been nigh on impossible with a paintbrush.
Anna Pinkster was awarded the Prince of Wales Prize for Portrait Drawing for her charcoal sketch of Em and Bruno. Complete with a black background, charcoal was an interesting choice for a portrait containing a black cat; he almost disappears into his surroundings and merges with the material of Em’s shirt.
Michael Travis Seymour (b1976) also chose to work with charcoal for his Study of Tatiana. Unlike Pinkster, Travis Seymour has a much more delicate approach to drawing and does not rush the process. Although it is not a finished portrait, the face and hair almost look like a black and white photograph due to the fine lines and shading.
As well as Her Majesty the Queen, there were a handful of well-known people framed on the walls of the Mall Galleries. One of these was Dame Judi Dench by the English artist Michael Noakes (b1933) who was elected as a Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1967. Known for painting several important people, including members of the royal family, Noakes comes across as someone who takes portrait painting very seriously, however, there is something not quite right with his portrait of Judi Dench. The 83-year old actress leads a very busy life and it was often hard to find a date to sit for the royal painter. On the occasions that she was able to meet with Noakes, she was often fidgeting, resulting in the artist deliberately adding an extra appendage to Dench’s body in an expression of his frustration. “That is why I portrayed Judi with three arms, showing her in a rushed state.”
Carl Randall (b1975) is another painter who produced portraits of famous names, however, his results are a little unusual. The two examples of his work submitted to the exhibition were of the animator Nick Park (b1958) and the illustrator Raymond Briggs (b1934). Animator Nick Park and the Dinosaur Gallery, to give it its full title, shows the Wallace and Gromit creator behind a representation of the Natural History Museum. In the foreground are eight three-dimensional, cartoonish-looking dinosaurs, prancing around outside of the building. Randall’s choice for this scene was inspired by Park’s memories of visiting the museum to sketch the dinosaurs when he was a student.
This portrait is part of a series called London Portraits in which Randall asked 15 British celebrities who had contributed to British society and culture to choose a location in London that meant something to them to be used as the background of their portrait. In this instance, Park became part of the background with his chosen location in front of him, however, the clouded sky that makes up the backdrop is remarkably eye-catching.
Walking into a gallery and seeing Animator Nick Park and the Dinosaur Gallery on the opposite wall, the eyes are immediately drawn to the optical illusion effect of the white clouds. Until seen standing directly in front of the portrait, the painting appears to be three-dimensional. It is easy to be fooled into thinking the clouds are made of plastic and stuck on to the canvas.
The portrait of Raymond Briggs, famed for The Snowman (1978), is less bold and does not “pop” like its neighbouring painting. Briggs selected 65 Ashen Grove as the backdrop of his portrait, which is where he grew up as a child. It is also the setting of one of his famous graphic novels Ethel and Ernest (1998) and, therefore, holds lots of meaning for him.
Quite a few of the portraits at the Mall Galleries had won or been selected for various awards. One of these prizes included the RP award presented by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. This year, 2018, judges were looking for painters who had produced portraits that incorporated the theme “friends”. The £2000 prize was awarded to Saied Dai (b1958) whose portrait, Sisters, contained the interesting and engaging aspects the judges were looking for.
Dai was elected to the Society in 2004 and has since won several awards, with the RP being the most recent.
Seeing all the portraits together, it is clear that no artist has the exact same style as another. Whether photorealistic or impressionistic, everyone approaches the canvas differently. Naturally, there are similar styles, however, there were a couple that stood out from the others. These were not necessarily the best of the bunch but they were very different in terms of technique.
Melissa Scott-Miller, a middle-aged English artist, had two paintings in the exhibition. Both of these featured a figure named Adam, her son, who regularly appears in her compositions. Adam and Marsell, his friend since nursery school stood out for its cartoon-ish appearance, vibrant colours and detailed setting. The artist did not only focus on the human subjects, she painstakingly included everything in the room around them, from the apples on the table to the crucifix on the wall. She also added a picturesque view from the windows situated behind the two boys. Although this style may not be what people expect when thinking about portraits, it is still pleasing to look at and is refreshing to come across after so many generic portrait paintings.
David Graham, who likes to work in oils without any preparatory sketches, produced the portrait Coptic Priest, Jericho. This initially stood out for its energetic colours and brushstrokes, however, it also attracted attention for being one of the few paintings to represent a different culture.
“I relish working with artists who help me view the world from a different perspective, often challenging my own views in the process.”
Alongside the main exhibition was a smaller display of photographs by Aliona Adrianova who photographed many of the portrait artists in their studios. This is part of the Mall Galleries major project “In the Studio” which aims to encourage new artists by revealing the ways different artists work and to learn about the creating process. With her photographs, Adrianova aimed to capture the artists in their creative settings as well as reveal their relationship between life and art.
This was a perfect addition to the portrait exhibition, providing the opportunity to discover the artists behind the artwork and appreciate the time and energy focused on the creative process rather than only viewing the finished product. It is easy to forget the challenges and difficulties painters face in order to create the perfect outcome. These photographs reveal the artists as human beings rather than portrait producing machines.
Although this particular exhibition closed on 25th May, there will be future opportunities to view portraits by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. The Society uses the Mall Galleries for their annual exhibition, therefore, keep an eye on the gallery’s diary for 2019 so that you do not miss out next year.
The Mall Galleries next exhibition is the New English Art Club Annual Exhibition 2018, which runs from 15th June until 23rd June. Admission is £4 (£3 concessions), however, National Art Pass holders receive 50% off. All exhibitions are free for Friends of Mall Galleries and under 18s.