Portrait of the artist (with earring) as a pounds 10,000 winner

Award judges hail the renaissance of art form many thought dead

An angular and morose self-portrait yesterday won a 25-year-old the BP Portrait Award.

Self-portrait by James Hague, from Derbyshire, shows the artist wearing an earring, his long and chalky face jutting from the canvas. It is as laconic in style as Hague himself, who said beforehand that he would be "quite pleased" to win the prize, worth pounds 10,000.

The award was set up in 1980 to encourage young artists to develop the art of portraiture at a time when it was perceived as unfashionable. Now, according to Robin Gibson, chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, it is on the rise.

"Portrait painting is alive and kicking, whether people like it or not," he said. "Every day I read in the papers things on its death, but it goes on."

The award itself - and the exhibition of the 63 best entries for it - are proof. This year, 772 artists entered portraits. Last year, 140,000 people came to the exhibition, almost double the year before.

The National Portrait Gallery is inundated with requests from people trying to find portrait painters for themselves or their businesses.

Christopher Le Brun, one of the BP judges and an artist himself, said the entries this year were "very strong".

"There was a time when portraits might have seemed rather humdrum," he said.

"A lot of artists were trap-ped into portraiture in the 18th and 19th centuries as a way of making a living. You can see that in Reynolds and Gainsborough at certain times in their careers. That's not true nowadays. The work entered for this award is made with an imaginative purpose."

The pounds 4,000 second prize was awarded to Peter Andersen, 28, who is self- taught, for Family, a portrait of his cousin and his partner and child.

The painting's format was quite classical, Mr Andersen said. "It echoes Holbein's painting of two geezers standing with objects placed around them relating to their lives [The Ambassadors].

"I haven't lifted it straight from Holbein, but I've placed objects which are important to these people around them in a slightly surreal way."

The third prize of pounds 2,000 went to Mark McPadden, 23, for Il papa, while Martyn Baldwin, Frances Borden, Mark Gilbert, Tom Hallifax and David Hosie were commended.

Mr Gibson said that portrait painting had oscillated in and out of fashion throughout history. It came into its own during the Renaissance, when artists turned their energies from the divine towards the human.

With the modernist revolution and the influence of artists like Picasso early this century, portrait painting became marginalised. "Then, after the horrors of two world wars, artists began to look at people again and the human situation," Mr Gibson said. "Human beings again became acceptable subjects."

Not always in the view of their sitters, of course. Winston Churchill famously loathed Graham Sutherland's portrait of him commissioned by the Houses of Parliament. After his death, it emerged that it had been burnt by his wife.

More recently, a portrait of the Princess of Wales last year by Henry Mee was widely criticised as unflattering. Some observed that it made her look like the Queen Mother.

Honor Clerk, the National Portrait Gallery's curator of the 20th century, said that the great British painters of this century - Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney - had influenced contemporary portraiture.

"If you have three people of such international renown doing portraiture, it gives the whole genre a seriousness that people want to emulate," said Ms Clerk.

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