Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London

3.00

Fresh views of familiar faces

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.



To 21 May (020 7930 6844)

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Stinson Hunter and his associates Stubbs and Grime in Channel 4 documentary The Paedophile Hunter

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
This Banksy mural in Clacton has been removed by the council
art
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?