A young artist already famed for his paintings of celebrities won the £25,000 BP Portrait Award last night and immediately launched a fierce attack on the Tate Gallery for ignoring portraiture.
Stuart Pearson Wright, 25, said huge numbers of figurative painters in Britain were struggling to survive while the Tate, Britain's foremost gallery of contemporary art, concentrated on conceptual artists such as Tracey Emin.
Mr Wright, whose prize-winning work was a study of some of Britain's leading academics, including Sir Anthony Kenny and Sir Kenneth Dover, said many of his contemporaries were being forced to work in fast-food outlets because of the lack of support for portraiture in Britain.
"This prize is a glass of water in a desert. It's the difference between having a career and working in Burger King. It's been entirely instrumental in setting up my career and a means of earning a living," he said.
"I feel very strongly that the Tate, which should be buying contemporary works of art across a broad spectrum of different types, is simply buying conceptual pieces and is completely ignoring the total abundance of figurative painting and sculpture in this country."
The winning painting depicts six past and current presidents of the British Academy, a fellowship of scholars of distinction, and was commissioned by the academy for its centenary next year.
Mr Wright, from Eastbourne, received his prize from the model Jerry Hall at a dinner at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where the shortlisted works go on exhibition from tomorrow.
The success followed several years of acclaim for Mr Wright, who has been described as a "Hogarth for our times", after the 18th-century social satirist.
His previous commissions include the actors Kathy Burke and Richard E Grant and the director Mike Leigh. He has been shown in the Portrait Award three times before, and his portraits of the actor John Hurt and the dancer Adam Cooper are already in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare bought Mr Wright'spainting of the actor David Thewlis being chased naked down a Soho street by a chicken.
The painter's interest in the appearance of people stems from childhood, when as the blond boy in a dark-haired family he was told that he had been conceived through a sperm-donor insemination programme.
The prize, now in its 21st year, regularly proves an enormous hit with the public. Attendance figures of 171,000 last year made it even more popular than the £20,000 Turner Prize, which is organised by the Tate.
Second prize went jointly to Phil Hale, 38, and Brendan Kelly, 31. The artists receive £4,000 each.
The BP Travel Award prize of £2,000, which was won by Mr Wright three years ago, goes to a Leicestershire policeman, Alan Parker, for his proposal to document the day-to-day life of his force.
He will take leave to shadow the squads and beat officers at work in Leicester. The work he completes will be displayed next year alongside the next BP Portrait Award.
Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said this year's award demonstrated the "range and liveliness" of contemporary figurative painting. Nearly 60 paintings were chosen for display from more than 600 entries.
This year, the sponsors raised the prize money from £10,000 to £25,000, making the portrait award one of the highest in British art.
Dr Saumarez Smith said that he hoped the extra money would improve the status of the award. "The increase in the cash prize subtly changes the level of public interest and puts it on a par financially with the Jerwood [painting prize of £30,000] and the Turner. Obviously it is in our interest that it is seen as the equivalent of these two."Reuse content