Artist takes £25,000 prize with portrait of a 'little miracle'

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The Independent Online

An artist inspired by the fight for survival of his prematurely born son has won the prestigious BP Portrait Award.

Stephen Shankland's oil painting The Miracle, featuring his wife, Kelly, and their son, Connor, won the £25,000 prize last night.

Connor was born prematurely in January 2003 when doctors feared he might not survive the night. He is now a healthy 17-month-old.

"The Miracle is a painted tribute to the strength and courage of my wife and the strong will to survive of my son," said Shankland, who lives and works in Aberdeenshire and studied at the Grays School of Art.

"After spending a month at our son's bedside following his birth with a diaphragmatic hernia, doctors nicknamed him 'the little miracle'," he added.

Mr Shankland also wins a £4,000 commission at the discretion of the National Portrait Gallery's trustees.

Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery where Mr Shankland's painting is now on display, said the judges were not aware of the story behind the winning portrait, as the award is anonymous.

"It's rather discreet, it's a quiet painting. It has almost a religious quality, helped by a little bit of gold leaf in the picture; a sort of Renaissance approach, a Madonna and child. The whole painting engaged us in this quiet way," Mr Nairne said.

There were a record number of entries to the prize this year - 955 compared to 858 last year. Of these, 54 have been selected for display in a free exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

"I was very struck by a lot of very strong entries. I think the exhibition this year is very powerful with a really wide range of types of portraits with different approaches which came over very powerfully," Mr Nairne added.

Paul Harris, a stonemason who worked on Hereford Cathedral before setting up his own company, won the second prize of £8,000 for a portrait of his business partner, Louise Tiplady.

"We loved the almost violent colour of the background and the slightly stern-looking young woman," Mr Nairne said.

Third prize went to Fergus Mayhew, a full-time househusband from Devon who by his own admission only paints one picture a year. He won £4,000 for a portrait of his mother, Bunty, entitled Head Full Of Smiles. "It was absolutely delightful. We felt she was in the room with us," said Mr Nairne.

Sara Shamma, a Syrian artist working in Damascus, won the £2,000 fourth prize for a self-portrait.

The BP Travel Award, a £4,000 grant for a young artist under 40, has been won by Darvish Fakhr, who plans to travel to Iran to paint portraits of local people in the old Persian bazaar in Tehran. His work will go on show at the National Portrait Gallery in summer 2005.

Paintings by last year's winner, the Ukrainian artist Ulyana Gumeniuk, of the inhabitants of small villages in Russia and the Ukraine, are now on display.

Besides Mr Nairne, this year's judges included Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality; Susan Ferleger Brades, director of the Hayward Gallery; the artist John Keane and BP's UK director of arts and culture Des Violaris. "The superb quality of these winning paintings, together with the record number of entries, demonstrates again the vitality and health of portraiture today," said Ms Violaris.