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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones