BP Portrait Award: Chance meeting with homeless man leads to £30,000 portrait prize

German artist took inspiration from the Old Masters to emphasise that ‘everyone deserves respect and attention’

arts correspondent

The chance sighting of a homeless man sitting outside a museum in the pouring rain provided the inspiration for an artist who collected the most prestigious portrait prize in Britain last night.

Thomas Ganter became the first German to win the BP Portrait Award with his work Man with a Plaid Blanket. The 40-year-old wanted to paint a homeless man in the style that nobles or saints were portrayed in traditional portraiture “to emphasise that everyone deserves respect, attention and care”.

The announcement at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London marked the 25th anniversary of the award, which comes with a cheque for £30,000 and a commission for the gallery.

The judges “were struck by the intensity of the sitter’s gaze” in the winning entry, “and how every texture and surface was rendered in intricate detail; from the icon-like gold chain fence to the rose in the crumpled paper cup”.

Mr Ganter had been visiting the Städel Museum in Frankfurt on a rainy afternoon, to look at the institution’s collection of Old Masters, when he noticed a homeless man on a street nearby who reminded him of some of the portraits in the gallery.

“I was stunned by how the man’s clothes, pose and other details resembled what I had seen in the museum,” he said. “However, this time I was looking at a homeless person wrapped in a blanket and not at the painting of a noble in an elaborate garment.”

Mr Ganter was inspired by the works of Diego Velazquez, Hans Holbein and Jan van Eyck as he set about sketching the basic studies for his work. “The execution and composition of their paintings was a great inspiration,” he added.

Thomas Ganter will pick up £30,000 for winning the award (vimeopro.com/lonelyleap) Thomas Ganter will pick up £30,000 for winning the award (vimeopro.com/lonelyleap) He approached Karel Strnad, a homeless man, to sit for the painting. “Karel is a well-known figure in the neighbourhood and earns money cleaning car wind-screens. His charisma and physiognomy have always impressed me,” Mr Ganter said. There were five sittings, and the artist used a life-sized doll to complete the clothes and blanket.

“Basically, in my opinion, this picture says that all men are equal, no matter what position they are in,” Mr Ganter said. “And that’s why you shouldn’t approach a person with a certain image of him in mind.”

He added that the oil-on-canvas work contained a “political statement about the contrast between wealth and poverty”, adding: “Maybe they will see homeless people in another way afterwards. Maybe only for two seconds and that’s OK.”

Mr Strnad said of his portraitist: “This man is the best. Best. Honest. Best man.”

Mr Ganter was initially self-taught, working as a lithographer, before studying illustration at the University of Applied Sciences in Wiesbaden. He now works at Kawom, the animation and illustration agency he founded in 2001. He said that while being an illustrator helps hone his art it remains defined by the clients, but that art is his passion. “Most of my canvases try to capture the beauty of visual appearances while including a message – whether it’s the impact of globalisation or social inequality.”

There were four paintings on the BP shortlist, with the second prize, and a cheque for £10,000, going to Richard Twose, a 51-year-old teacher. His subject was Jean Woods, a model and star of the television documentary Fabulous Fashionistas.

Mr Twose saw Ms Woods working in a shop in Bath, where he is based, and was impressed by her “striking looks and contemporary, edgy style, but also the depth of character in her face”.

The award received 2,377 entries this year from 71 countries. A total of 55 have been selected to go on display at the National Portrait Gallery. The artist Jonathan Yeo and author Joanna Trollope were on the six-strong judging panel.

One the day the winners were announced, an oil-industry watchdog, Platform, released a report criticising BP’s 25 years of sponsorship for the prize. The document quoted Raoul Martinez, who has been shortlisted three times for the portrait award.

He said: “I realised long ago that, as a painter, offering legitimacy to fossil fuel corporations is a far more significant statement than anything that might be communicated by an exhibition.”

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