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BP Portrait Awards celebrates 30 years

On the 30th anniversary of BP’s sponsorship of the BP Portrait Award, one of the world’s most prestigious painting competitions is hitting the headlines for more than just the talent on show. Amid the debate about corporate sponsorship of the arts, we look at the Award's history and speak to four former winners about the transformative impact of the competition
What does it mean to win the BP Portrait Award?

More than five million people have enjoyed the world’s most renowned portrait exhibition, free of charge, since BP began its support in 1990. Even on a traditionally quiet afternoon for art galleries, the exhibition is bustling.

 

It’s one of the Gallery’s most popular displays with visitors coming from far and wide to see the portraiture on show. 

 

“Just being selected for the exhibition can be a gamechanger for an artist’s career and winning is transformative,” said 2018 winner Miriam Escofet, recently back from exhibiting her work in Japan.

 

Escofet, who entered the competition four times before winning with An Angel at My Table, is one of many painters who say that artists, portraiture and the public have all benefited from the past three decades of BP’s support.

Being an artist is possibly the hardest way to earn a living. There’s huge financial instability and it’s very isolated – you’re working away and no one sees what you’re doing apart from your family. Then, suddenly, you have this fantastic exposure if you’re in the exhibition. When I was told I’d been shortlisted, I knew it was going to really change things and winning was like getting an Oscar; doors just opened up.”Miriam Escofet

The competition has also helped to revive an important art tradition. With a first prize of £35,000 for the winner, and a total prize fund of £74,000, the award is aimed at encouraging portraiture.

 

In fact, many credit the competition for sustaining the genre in the years when it fell out of favour as conceptual artists such as Damien Hirst dominated the scene and some art colleges abandoned courses in portrait painting.

 

“The Award has made portraiture sexy again, encouraging curators to put on shows and giving portrait painters a new lease of life,” said Daphne Todd, a 2010 BP Portrait Award winner, who works in a converted barn on her East Sussex farm.

When they opened up the award to people over the age of 40, I thought: ‘I’ll have another go.’ Women are generally told they can’t do portraiture and historically there are very few great female painters. So, winning the BP Award gave me some sort of approbation, which is jolly useful because you can doubt yourself and think: ‘Why am I doing this if it can only ever be second rate?’”Daphne Todd,OBE

The popularity of the exhibition is evidence of the wider appeal and more accessible nature of portraiture to the general public than other genres, said Clara Drummond, a 2016 winner with a portrait of her friend, Kirsty.


“Because portraiture is a picture of the human face, it’s something we can all relate to. It isn’t mysterious and incomprehensible in the way that some contemporary art might be,” Drummond said. 

Portraiture in Britain has its roots in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, when artists lost commissions to decorate churches. To survive, many found work painting the wealthy owners of the country’s stately homes.


The opportunities in British portraiture were so great they attracted some of the world’s most distinguished painters, such as Hans Holbein and Anthony Van Dyck. Both artists became leading court painters under the patronage of English kings.


“In a way, the big companies have taken over and become the patrons of today, and the competitions they sponsor are the most equitable and fair way of allowing artists from any background to get a platform,” Todd said.

The BP Portrait Award has allowed young aspiring artists of all backgrounds and ages to submit work into an open competition and it’s given them the motivation and focus to pursue portraiture and be ambitious in their work. It allowed me to be more experimental with my work and changed my palette to create a certain luminosity and lightness I didn’t have before in my painting. I don’t think I would still be working as an artist if the award didn’t exist.”Clara Drummond

The Portrait Award also provides a platform for work that could otherwise go unseen by the public and unrecognized in the art world. And, being chosen for the exhibition can help to open doors to commissions and other opportunities. 

 

“It’s so difficult for artists to survive in the early years,” said Andrew Tift, who entered 12 times before scooping first place in 2006 for Kitty, a triptych of Lucian Freud’s first wife, Kitty Garman. “It comes down to blind faith and an ability to jump the hurdles,” he said. 

 

Many artists struggle to find enough time to paint as they often need to teach or take up other jobs just to earn a living. Winning gave Tift the breathing space he needed to devote himself to his work, he said. 

 

When I was doing my art degree, I realized I liked painting people most of all. It was a very simple and pure realization and the clarity of this has stayed with me for more than 25 years of professional practice. The BP Portrait Award nurtured, encouraged and enabled this passion, not just for me, but for countless other generations of artists, many of whom the BP Award has also brought together as friends.”Andrew Tift

 

When announcing the 2019 winners, BP CEO Bob Dudley said the organization believes it has a responsibility to support and invest in the communities in which it works. 


BP’s backing of the Portrait Award helps artists to pursue their passion and enables millions of people to enjoy that work, he said. Of the people who oppose BP’s support, he said:

 

“We respect different opinions and welcome discussion, even debate, about our involvement. But, let’s also remember there are many different points of view.” 


While some who have called for the Gallery to reject BP’s funding, there have also been artists and critics who have spoken publicly for BP’s involvement in the arts.

 

The Times’ Richard Morrison said: “BP has been Britain’s biggest and most loyal arts sponsor for 30 years, during which time 50 million people have enjoyed events it has backed. It’s also a company that employs thousands of British people and never shirks paying its taxes to the British government.”