“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend,” said John Singer Sargent. There were nearly 2,200 entries for this year’s BP Portrait Award which equates to a lot of friendships broken. The annual exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has become a fixture since its inception 33 years ago and throughout the vagaries of taste of the intervening decades it has remained steadfast in championing traditional painted portraiture. A £25,000 first prize and its accompanying £4,000 commission help sharpen eye and hand.
Because the pictures are the product of hours of unblinking scrutiny they don’t always make comfortable viewing. Among the shortlisted works, for example, is Aleah Chapin’s Auntie, which is unsparing in its depiction of old age and shows an old friend of the family whose “body is a map of her journey through life”. Jamie Routley’s triptych of Tony Lewis meanwhile suggests an inner life of great intensity: the sitter is a newspaper seller at Baron’s Court Tube station.
The modernity of this traditional genre is evident in that almost all put psychology above flattery-these are intimate pictures not public projections. As Lucian Freud put it: “I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them.”
The 2012 BP Portrait Award is on show at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until September 23