Viewing until Sunday 5th June 2022 at Compton Verney

Suzy Wright 2020

I once read, what I thought was a humorous comment, that Sky Arts most popular television programme, Portrait Artist of the Year, is actually the Great British Paint Off!

Six artists, a mix of professional and amateurs are given just four hours to produce a portrait of a famous face. Employing a wide range of techniques and styles, you could ask the question, is it simply a question of watching paint dry?

It is far more gripping a spectacle than you could ever imagine. The artists take you on a journey from initial sketch or idea to completed artwork and the ride is fascinating. Some of the pictures produced are wildly flamboyant whilst others show incredible minute detail, almost photographic. From canvas, cloth, rags, tissues, wood cuts and more, the media used is endless and incredibly imaginative.

The programme appeals to both those who paint for a living and those that don’t! I always found  myself judging the works and deciding on who I felt had produced the winning piece of artwork. Such is the personal and objective nature of art appreciation I would often disagree with the illustrious judges, artist Tai Shan Schierenberg, independent curator Kathleen Soriano and art historian Kate Bryan and could be seen shouting at the screen at what I understood to have been a calamitous mistake!

I have always found the entire process fascinating and was eagerly looking forward to viewing Portrait Artist of the Year: The Exhibition at Warwickshire gallery and country house Compton Verney. I was not disappointed!

The exhibition has been curated by one of those judges, Kathleen Soriano. It features over 120 incredible portraits, chosen from the work of more than 1,000 artists who have taken part in the competition and associated Sky Arts TV programme since it was launched in 2013. Over the years Portrait Artist of the Year has unearthed, encouraged, and nurtured portrait artists from all levels of society, both amateur and professional artists, discovering new talents with many going on to establish successful careers making a living from their art.

Highlighting the sheer diversity of unique styles, media and approaches taken to portraiture, the exhibition displays the work of all past winners with their subsequent prize commissions for major museums and galleries including the National Gallery of Ireland, the British Library and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Several famous faces will return the viewer’s gaze, including celebrity sitters such as actors Kim Cattrall and Imelda Staunton, musicians Sir Tom Jones and Nile Rodgers, writers Dame Hilary Mantel and Lemn Sissay, plus broadcasting legends Lord Melvyn Bragg and Graham Norton.

I was simply blown away by the almost photographic detail of work by Hetty Lawlor 2017 and other portrait miniatures of Lya Nagado 2017 & Sarah Cowley 2020. The range and variety of techniques & settings is limitless. Many of the portraits are playful, skewed glasses and paper hats adorning heads whilst others express touching family moments.

The portraits of Suzy Wright 2020 were produced in vibrant watercolours and inks. There was an amazing clarity and brightness in the portrait images created by Kelsey Calum Stevenson 2021 and simplicity in the image produced of actor Robert Bathurst by Samira Addo 2017 which was both refreshing, spirited and vibrant. The portrait of Graham Norton 2017 is a real triumph, capturing the mischievous and playful nature of the irrepressible television personality.

Many expressed to me that Belfast born Gareth Reid`s portrait of Graham Norton was their favourite but I was  drawn to Christable Blackburn`s portrait of musician Nile Rogers. A guitar leaning against the wall with Nile sitting leg crossed casually dressed in cool white shirt, black jacket, chic trousers, and the ubiquitous beret, was the real star of the show.

I also appreciated the Christian Hock 2014 portrait of boxer Amir Khan. You have to look closely at the image to see that Christian has depicted the Bolton-born boxer in a fight stance with his fists raised but from his left side another blurred arm can be seen holding the hand of a child. This represents the charitable work Amir Khan has completed in his hometown of Bolton, which is where the painting now has its permanent home.

Of course, for any portrait artist, there is no more readily available sitter than themselves! Rembrandt famously documented his changing appearance in dozens of known self-portraits and this exhibition devotes a substantial amount of wall space to this genre.

Self-portraiture is at the heart of Portrait Artist of the Year with the applicants having to first submit a self-portrait in order to enter the competition. It is from these submissions that the judges select those who appear on the TV show, leading to some startling and imaginative compositions as the artists struggle to stand out from the crowd. The densely hung walls of this section are hung salon-style, illustrating the great breadth and range of the approaches to portraiture, as well as giving visitors an opportunity to explore each artist’s individual style.

Check out Shanti Panchal’s instantly recognisable hand, which employs the colours of his native India, to Hun Adamoglu’s iconography filled painting that evokes his Cypriot origins; from Irish artist Conor Walton’s self-portrait as a centaur with a scorpion’s tail to Rosso Spotto’s tongue in cheek passport-photo style images.

“It has been an honour and a privilege to be a judge, alongside Kate Bryan and Tai Shan Schierenberg, on ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ over the last 9 years and to be celebrating the incredible talent that this Sky Arts TV programme has revealed, genuinely contributing to the development of portraiture and to our great national museum collections. Curating this exhibition for this incredible venue is extra special for me as I have very fond memories of my time there as Director.”

Kathleen Soriano:

 “One of the most inspirational aspects of Portrait Artist of the Year is the way that it has democratised art, giving people both the confidence to speak about art and express their opinions without fear, and maybe even to pick up a brush or a pencil and create for themselves. That’s why we are so pleased to be hosting this glorious celebration of making at Compton Verney.”

Julie Finch, Director CEO of Compton Verney:

“Our three guiding principles at Sky Are Accessibility, Inclusivity and Participation… and ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ embodies all of those pillars in one perfect programme. Over the years it has evolved into one of the most prestigious and certainly the best-known portrait painting competitions attracting a broad and diverse range of talent as well as encouraging deeper participation in the art form whilst doing a brilliant job of demystifying it along the way. We are thrilled that Kathleen and Compton Verney are staging this incredible exhibition to showcase the talent the show has featured over the years.”

Phil Edgar-Jones, Director of Sky Arts:

I spent about two hours strolling around the exhibition. You don’t have to know a lot about art or portraiture to appreciate the scope and quality of work on display. This exhibition, like the television programme will attract artists and non – artists and there will be something for everyone to enjoy. There is of course also a permanent exhibition of many other wonderful and fascinating pieces of art, crafts and sculpture inside and outside of Compton Verney for visitors to enjoy. The Capability Brown parkland and lake is also worth walking around. I would fully recommend a visit as soon as possible.

I am now very much looking forward to Landscape Artist of the Year: The Exhibition? It is sure to come!

Portrait Artist of the Year is a Storyvault Films production for SkyArts