Powerful image of mother in mortuary wins portrait prize

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The Independent Culture

A harrowing painting by Daphne Todd which depicts the artist's dead mother was announced as the winner of the BP Portrait Award last night.

Last Portrait of Mother will now go on view at the National Portrait Gallery alongside the other nominees. Second prize went to Michael Gaskell for his photo-realistic painting Harry, while third prize went to David Eichenberg for Tim II.

Todd's work was selected from 2,177 entries and wins her £25,000 and a portrait commission for the gallery. The painting shows her mother, Annie Mary, as a frail collection of skin and bones, propped up on a pillow in a morgue. Her skin is mixture of violent shades of yellow, purple, grey and white.

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said: "Daphne Todd's winning painting is a powerful and poignant portrait – a worthy winner amongst excellent competition."

Gaskell, from Sheffield, wins £8,000 after finishing in second place for the second year in a row. He spotted his subject, Harry, while he was shopping in Gap with his family, getting to know him through subsequent conversations they had while he was sitting being painted.

Eichenberg, who won £6,000 after finishing third, painted his friend Timothy Stover, a sculptor, sitting in his workshop with protective goggles on. Eichenberg said he wanted his painting to look like a work by the celebrated 16th-century portraitist Hans Holbein, with every item in the image representing an aspect of his sitter.

The prize found itself under more scrutiny than usual this year thanks to its long-term sponsorship deal with BP, the company currently trying to stem a major environmental disaster after its oil rig the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Protests were held last night outside the National Portrait Gallery, where the ceremony was held. Green campaigners said they wanted the gallery to sever its ties with BP, arguing that its sponsorship of the competition helps it to mend its tattered public image.

Daphne Todd's award-winner

It's difficult to look at the painting for a long time – it has an extremely abject quality to it: it depicts elements that we violently want to push away from us in order to remain psychologically intact human beings. We are alive, not dead.

The husk of a body contains nothing that we want to identify with. The dead eyes of the woman are almost like those of a fairy-tale crone – the painting is a frightening depiction of life's end. But the questions it poses are difficult, and probably remain with us beyond our time in front of the painting.

Todd's mother was over 100 when she died, and it was after her 100th birthday that she began to refuse food. What does a 100-year-old woman even look like? Was the artist's mother as alive at 100 as she was at 90? Did she die when she stopped wanting to live? The painting is of grieving – of a coming to terms with the fact that, though souls may be embodied, they do not stay in the body for long. Todd was painting as her mother's body was changing, as though she was loading her brush with a few final vestiges of life.