I went to London to see the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition. This is now something of an annual pilgrimage for me. I always make an effort to get to the National Portrait Gallery to see the photographs on display. Each year I select my personal favourite before looking to see which works were awarded prizes by the judges and, for the first time, my choice coincided with the winner of the first prize. Obviously, my choice was based on the fact that I liked it. The judges would have used many more criteria, including technical ones.
‘Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya’ by Claudio Rasano took the honours. Once again, a photograph I admired, like so many in the exhibition, came from a series. In this case from a body of work with the title ‘Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare’. Once again, I would have liked to have seen the others.
In London so I visited the National Portrait Gallery for what is now an annual pilgrimage to the Taylor Wessing Photographic exhibition. There is a lot of fun to be had in deciding which photographs I would have selected as the winners. It is rare that my choices match the actual winners but I have to accept that I am not the expert.
The photo I found the most striking was of a young male dancer waiting for an audition. The intensity of his focus as he prepares is impressive and is captured in this shot which shows him looking down. In taking her photograph moments before the audition, something of the jeopardy of the enterprise is expressed, both for the dancer and the photographer.
The photographer is Sophie Harris- Taylor and, like many of the photographs in this exhibition, the picture is one of a series. I often want to see the rest of the photographs but I understand it would be impractical to display them all.
In London so a visit to the National Portrait Gallery was possible. On a previous visit I had seen the statue of Edward William Lane in a corner. As I was on a different mission on that occasion I made a mental note to look more closely next time. This was that ‘next time’.
Edward William Lane was a Victorian Orientalist. He studied and wrote extensively on the Egyptians and translated Arabic works. His most famous translation was ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ which he published between 1838 and 1840, first in monthly parts and later as three volumes. However, his version was cleaned up or censored to avoid any swooning by those early Victorians.
by Richard James Lane, plaster statue, 1829
His portrait in the gallery was made by Richard James Lane and dates from 1829 when he returned to Britain from abroad. He is shown in Turkish dress since this was the attire adopted by the wealthy in Egypt.
This fascination with the exotic can also be seen in the portrait of Byron by Thomas Phillips. This dates from 1835 and shows the poet in Albanian dress. He died in 1824 and this version of the painting is based on a sitting from 1813.
GEORGE GORDON LORD BYRON English poet depicted here in his costume as a Greek patriot – Date: 1788-1824
In London, so off I went to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my all time favourite places to spend an afternoon. On this occasion I wanted to hunt out the portraits of people who were famous once but whose fame has waned with the years. The gallery is full of paintings from way back in history as well as many contemporary works of art. I wondered how many of the currently famous would still be thought about in years to come, even in a hundred years time. Then it struck me that there would be those who were famous enough to merit a portrait and famous enough to have that portrait exhibited in a gallery but who would now be unknown to most visitors.
The portrait above is of William Henry Betty. He was born in 1781 and died in 1874, so had a long life. However, his career was brief even if it did start at a very young age. He was a child actor who went on the stage, reputedly because he saw a play as a young boy and was inspired. He started his own career in Ireland but soon came to London and toured the UK. His fame was such that he attracted crowds and the attention of royalty.
His career was short lived, though, and by 1808 it was pretty much over. He attempted some comebacks after university but, like many child actors, never achieved the same heights as an adult actor.
This portrait is by the artist John Opie from the year 1804. His son donated the portrait to the gallery in 1905. Here he is shown at the height of his fame in full actor mode.
Having seen his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I wanted to see his presence on the wall. Fortunately, his portrait is in the collection. It is fitting that he is seen as Claire, the name he uses for his little girl persona.
Richard Ansett is the artist and his photograph is from 2013 when Grayson Perry was the BBC’s choice as Reith lecturer.
I was fascinated by the television series on Channel Four called ‘Who Are You?’ in which artist Grayson Perry explored the idea of identity. I was keen to see the art works he created after meeting groups, individuals and partners around Britain. These are on display throughout the National Portrait Gallery so, when I was in London, I went to see them.
Grayson Perry is an amazing artist but his gift seems to be making a connection with other people. In the three documentaries I saw, his treatment of the subjects was respectful and considerate in a way that brought out key insights into identity.
‘Modern Family’ by Grayson Perry
Included in the programmes were a same sex couple with their mixed race son, a couple affected by the Alzheimer’s of the husband, a young white woman who converted to Islam, a group from Northern Ireland and a group in the Jesus Army. I was most affected by the story of Alex man who was transitioning from a girl to the young man he knew himself to be. In this case, the art work was a bronze sculpture called ‘I am a Man’ based on the Peter Pan story, since Peter Pan was so important to Alex when young.
‘I am a Man’ by Grayson Perry
It is this connection between the stories of the people involved and the pieces Grayson Perry created that was fascinating. He created a hijab for the young woman who converted to Islam and the pot made for and about the couple affected by Alzheimer’s has their family photos cut up so that only fragments are left.
‘The Ashford Hijab’ by Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry is an artist with a sense of humanity and this comes across in his work. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In London, so off to one of my favourite places- The National Portrait Gallery. As a boy of the 60s and 70s, all of my history lessons are exemplified in this gallery and the more modern paintings make up a record of the decades since. I wanted to see the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition. I try to catch this each year but I always use the opportunity to see a few old favourites among the great and the good on the walls.
I had two paintings in mind this time. The first was ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ by Thomas Jones Barker from 1863. Note that the title is ‘England’s Greatness’ rather than Britain’s! Where this leaves the Scots, Welsh (and, because of the time, the Irish would have been included as well) I don’t know. This painting is one that best exemplifies the type of history teaching I received. Other countries and other races were important only to the extent that they were part of our country’s story. The concept that ENGLAND knew best and had the answer to all the world’s problems is illustrated here by Queen Victoria handing a bible to the subservient black person! It is interesting to note as well that in the gallery listing five people are named. The Queen herself, Prince Albert and Lords Palmerston and Russell (Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister respectively) and Elizabeth Wellesley, the Duchess of Wellington who acted as a Lady in Waiting to the Queen. The sixth person in the portrait is not named! He is black, from somewhere in the Empire and could be anybody. He is one of the few black faces in the gallery, though.
Also on my list for a return viewing was the portrait of the Royal Family in 1913. This painting by Sir John Lavery shows King George V, his son who was briefly King Edward the Eighth, his wife Queen Mary and their daughter Princess Mary. The reason I like this picture so much is because the promise it holds within it, that son will follow father as monarch, was not realised. We know it, looking at it now, or as I did as a boy. I knew the outcome that the people pictured here did not and all that sense of power and entitlement captured in the picture could not prevail against history.
Here are two paintings that remind me of the history I was taught complete with the messages that were conveyed in those lessons. I am grateful to my secondary school history teacher; he was a brilliant man. I have, though, spent half a lifetime discovering that there was more to history than I was taught back in the 70s.
‘The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace in 1913’ and ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?