Portrait Prize Birmingham
Face-to-face with Danny Howes’ portrait of me

It’s not often, if ever, that you come face-to-face with your own image, hanging on the walls of a gallery. But, last week, this was my personal and moving experience at Birmingham’s RBSA Gallery where a Portrait Prize Exhibition has just opened, showcasing the very best of contemporary portraiture.

My painted portrait by Danny Howes is one of 81 works selected, from almost 500 entries submitted by local, national and international artists. Spanning diverse media and approaches, the show includes hyper-realist paintings and abstract collages, documentary photographs and charcoal sketches, by both emerging talent and established names.  

A world of faces, one highlight is Paul Jessett’s inventive oil painting ‘Self-Portrait in Shiny Round Balloon’. Reimagining the tradition of artists reflecting themselves mirrors, he has fragmented his appearance in an expressive kaleidoscope of swirls and slices, colour and light, on the surface of a silver balloon.

For the first time, the gallery has allowed photography to been included, and another highlight is  Jessika Inaba’s powerful portrait of Britain’s first Black, blind female barrister, Naomi St Juste. She stands proudly in her gown and wig but, as she breaks into a smile, it is her personality which shines through the formal wear, betraying the artist’s own admiration for her sitter who she declares worthy of being seen.

Portrait Prize Birmingham
Inside the RBSA Gallery’s Portrait Prize

Taking on the difficult job of judging such diverse approaches to portraiture, this year’s panel comprised Professor Jennifer Powell, Director of The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, John Devane, Professor of Painting at Coventry University, and the award-winning photographer Marta Kochanek.

Portrait Prize Birmingham

The judges allocated First Prize to Roy Eastland, who took his mother as a muse for the simply-titled ‘Mum’, which draws on a timeless subject in art history. In this modern take, there is quiet affection, rather than romanticism, etched into the surface of his delicate gold and silverpoint drawing on gesso, from which his ghostly sitter stares at viewers.

“I’m over the moon”, says the artist about his win, adding that “This is a drawing as a kind of meditation on human presence and memory”. By embedding lines of remembered speech, which are drawn, scratched away and then re-drawn again, he seems to point to the fact that a portrait can hold traces of a person, preserving memories.

Portrait Prize Birmingham muse
Frances Featherstone, ‘Motherly Loves’, oils

A shared memory has been portrayed in Frances Featherstone’s painterly and emotive double-portrait ‘Motherly Loves’, a worthy Second Prize winning entry, in which a warm glow illuminates the expectant women, almost from the inside out, as they lay together with their unborn child.

The contemporary reframing of motherhood is clearly a subject in vogue, as this year’s Student Prize winner is Olivia-Rose Barns whose ‘Mummy Ji’ photograph presents the artist with her mother-in-law, musing on tradition, identity and a sense of belonging through dress, as well as connected pose.

While awards are always welcome, many of the exhibited artists feel that having been selected is the real prize. Josie McCoy, who trained at Solihull College and now works as a professional portrait painter in Valencia, points out, “All we want is for someone to see our work”. Painted in airbrushed tones and cinematic terms, her fictional subject is ‘Beth Harmon II (The Queen’s Gambit)’, while she also accepts commissions for real people.

Portrait Prize Birmingham
A world of faces, with 81 portraits on show

On an adjacent wall, I find my own portrait. Several years ago, I’d sat for Birmingham’s Danny Howes, who is a great figurative painter known for his realist approach and exquisite use of light. Having written previously about his portraits of others, I felt honoured to have his camera turned on me, as he photographed me sitting next to my bookcase stacked high with art history books, looking relaxed and lost in thought.

Back in his studio he painted from several photographs over many months, and in the finished portrait I really feel ‘seen’ by Howes, who has framed me at my most thoughtful, behind closed doors. “It’s me”, I told him, upon seeing it for the first time. It’s a privilege to have been painted in this reflective manner by Howes.

Portrait Prize Birmingham
Discussing what it’s like to pose for a portrait with Director Rachel Dowling-Jones

As the RBSA’s Director Rachel Dowling-Jones points out, “Portraiture is so treasured because it shows the personality and essence of a sitter”. To be recognised and immortalised by an artist is an empowering experience, and one that the gallery is keen to share with visitors. Many of the artists in this exhibition are open to commissions and a list of them, categorised by style and approach, can be found at the front desk.

Looking ahead, portraiture will continue to be in the frame at the gallery. Opening on 25th July,  ‘Faces & Figures: Portraits from the RBSA Collection 1785 – 2023’ will feature figurative masterpieces from the archives. Alongside drawings and paintings will be sculpture, including an Art Deco inspired ‘Head of Man’ (1950) by Birmingham’s  ‘Michelangelo’ William Bloye, and a bust of the painter David Cox by Peter Hollins.  

Who artists choose to represent carries significant messages – from the personal to the political. While it’s well-known that a muse inspires their artist, having your portrait painted is inspiring, too. Today, it’s easy for us to simply snap a photograph in a second, but a commissioned portrait by an artist can carry and say so much more. As the winning artist Eastland says, “The hope is always to get at something which feels true”.

With a wealth of creative talent in its Membership, the RBSA offers a full commissioning service, including portraiture. To discuss new opportunities with Rachel, email [email protected]. The RBSA Gallery’s Portrait Prize Exhibition is free to visit and runs until Saturday 8th June, 2024.

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