'Devotional' painting of artist's dead mother shortlisted for award

Jonathan Brown reveals the three BP portrait prize finalists
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The Independent Culture

The emaciated and lifeless body of 100-year-old Annie Mary Todd lies propped up in the refrigerated room of the undertaker's funeral parlour.

With a hospital band still visible on her wrist, her long bony fingers caught in a half grip and her mouth locked in a gummy rictus, the image of the corpse captured by the dead woman's daughter, artist Daphne Todd, has been shortlisted for a prestigious art prize.

Last Portrait of Mother is described by the painter as a "devotional study" completed in the three days following Mrs Todd's death in April last year. The work beat more than 2,000 other pictures to make it to the final stage of this year's BP Portrait Award, now in its 31st year.

National Portrait Gallery director, Sandy Nairne, who is chairing the judging panel, described this year's entries for the £25,000 prize, which also carries a commission worth £4,000, as "outstanding". The other two contenders are British artist Michael Gaskell, who painted the portrait of a young man he spotted while out shopping, and American painter David Eichenberg.

But it is Ms Todd's uncompromising work that is likely to be the focus of debate at the exhibition to mark the award, held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, when it begins in June. The artist said she could understand there might be concerns of voyeurism over the portrait; which was painted with her mother's permission.

"I think they have a point in a way. We all hope our remains are going to be treated respectfully, and I can imagine that some people will think this is not respectful," she said. "There are all sorts of issues about death that are swept under the carpet. No one really accepts that it really happens to each and every one of us and that it is happening all the time," she added.

Ms Todd described the process of painting her dead mother as "therapeutic". She said she had been living with the family on their farm in East Sussex for the final 14 years of her life after suffering a misdiagnosis and an overdose while in sheltered accommodation. A widow of nearly 40 years, Mrs Todd had left school at the age of 16, working briefly as a secretary for her father before marrying and devoting her life to bringing up her two children.

"She was very feisty and perfectly compos mentis until the end," said Ms Todd. "She had been starving herself. After her 100th birthday party, which was a rather quiet affair because all her friends are dead, she didn't want to carry on and basically stopped eating. We called the doctor and kept an eye on her but apart from living on nutritional drinks, there was very little we could do," she explained.

Ms Todd, 63, painted her mother several times during her life, from middle age until she was 97, and said she saw the final work as a natural progression in the series. "Old people do look wonderful and she was available for me to paint and didn't mind," she explained.

However, she accepted that the painting, completed in two canvases, has the power to shock. The artist admitted that her daughter and brother – he has never seen the picture and is unlikely to do so – were "upset" and "uncomfortable" at the work. "Painting is a form of digesting something. It is an analytical process but it was actually quite therapeutic. It gave me something to do after she died and a reason to be with her," she said.

Mrs Todd had been in hospital in the two weeks before her death. When her condition deteriorated her daughter dashed to be at her bedside but arrived too late. "She was still warm and propped up like that. I told them in the hospital I would like to paint her and they arranged a sympathetic undertaker," she said.

The artist spent three days at work in the cool room at the funeral parlour but said her mother's body was then "beginning to colour a little bit". "I would have been uncomfortable to go on," the artist said, although she said she found the undertakers "cheerful" to be around.

Ms Todd said the medical system was poorly equipped to cope with people in the extremes of old age and that her mother had been forced to endure the full rigours of the National Health Service bureaucracy during her final days. "This is someone waiting to quietly die and there doesn't seem to be a system to deal with it." But she said she was not a supporter of legalised euthanasia. "I can easily see how that would be abused. The elderly are extremely vulnerable to mistreatment whether they are in care homes or with their relatives. The situation would be very easy to manipulate," she said.

She added that she had found it harder to come to terms with her father's death after not seeing him in his natural state. "You notice with the animals on the farm that if you have any fallen stock the other animals are noticeably better if you leave that animal there for a bit rather than whip it away – then the animals cry and bellow for days," she said.

The winner will be announced on 22 June.

David Eichenberg

The 38-year-old studied art in his home town of Toledo, Ohio, and his work has been exhibited across the United States.

His portrait, Tim II, shows his friend Timothy A Stover seated at a metal bandsaw in his workshop, downstairs from the artist's studio.

The work was partially inspired by the work of painter Hans Holbein, Mr Eichenberg said, adding that all the pieces of the painting told the life of the sitter. "I wanted to capture the uncertainty that the sitter was facing in his personal life at the time. His being between his undergraduate studies and what lies beyond. His ability to withstand what might be coming his way and to take it straight on," he said.

Daphne Todd

The artist was a runner-up in the National Portrait Gallery's Award in 1984. She attended the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied under Sir William Coldstream. Her previous subjects include Lord Sainsbury, Spike Milligan and David Lister, Arts Editor of The Independent. Her work is included in the National Portrait Gallery, the Science Museum and the Royal Academy.

Michael Gaskell

Harry Brown, 22, was spotted while out shopping at a Gap shop in Sheffield. Something about his face made him compelled to paint him, the 46-year-old artist explained. "I didn't want him to think I was some sort of oddball. So I got my wife to talk to him. He was the first person I have ever approached like that before. I normally paint commissions and people I know. When I got to know him I find he was a really interesting guy." It transpired that Mr Brown, who has never seen the finished painting, which was completed in a "short burst of intense work" over last winter, was a student in Leeds working part-time at the shop to pay for singing lessons. Mr Gaskell, who recently moved to Leicester from Sheffield, trained at Coventry Polytechnic. He also paints landscapes and still life. He cites Hans Holbein as one of his main influences.

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