The message opposite the entrance on the Mall sings out loud and clear: "Portrait Commissions and Any Other Commissions", it reads. "Consultants available in the East Gallery". So if the portraits in this annual exhibition of paintings by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters too often, as before, feel a touch formulaic; if many of the portraits look as if they could have been painted at any moment over the past hundred years; if we get a little too tired of admiring yet more sweet, prosperous, prettily painted, middle-class children with cellos or the like in drawing rooms with marble fireplaces – well, that's par for the course.
The ambition here is two-fold: to paint recognisable portraits well, and to shift them by the dozen from these crowded walls within the space of a couple of weeks, give or take a day or two. What we crave, as ever, is some evidence not so much of sheer technical competence but a certain freshness of vision or even a different kind of subject matter or pose. And, now and again, we get it.
Some of the best work is just beside the door, on the walls to left and right of you, as you walk in. Simple drawings in pencil, graphite, charcoal. These drawings – by the likes of Benjamin Sullivan, Tom Phillips and Alan Coulson – have freshness, perceptiveness, a sureness of touch. They don't feel over-done, over-larded. And being "mere" unadorned drawings of a modest size, they are likely to be relatively cheap too – by comparison with some of the fanfare in colour to be found elsewhere.
Generally speaking, the space looks better this time around. There is more breathing space for good works to be themselves, less cramping and cramming. This is especially so of the small suite of galleries at the back of the building. There are one or two deeply uninteresting paintings in these back galleries, however, in which category I would include a portrait of Jack Straw, staring, statesmanlike, into the middle distance, listening out, both ears cocked, for futurity's verdict.
Some of the best paintings this year are among the smallest. It is as if quality is playing a game of hide-and-seek with us. In fact, if we don't look hard we are likely to miss them. Look at Nigel Cox's wonderful portrait of Charlie Stock, who looks like a flapper-cum-Regency-period cross-dresser. The shadows give him a delicious hint of mock-menace. Then there is a trio of tiny portraits of rakishly behatted beauties by Anastasia Pollard. Of the large portraits, Emma Wesley's beautifully composed and tonally rich vision of Sarah Ward, a hop farmer, seated beside a window with an open book, in the company of a sleeping cat and a battery of warty sticks and umbrellas, is worth some attention. The painting with the richest sense of humour is undoubtedly a view of a sweeping staircase by John Wonnacott. Seldom has an environment been subject to such shameless, tongue-in-cheek aggrandisement. Its suitably top-heavy title is: Lord and Lady Palmer at Manderston – the Silver Staircase.
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