The RBSA Portrait Prize: how works are selected

Ever wondered about the judging process behind a major art prize? Wonder no more…

ART BLOG caught up with one of the judges of the Portrait Prize, which opens on July 27 and features some of the best portraits in the UK.

John Davenport RBSA is one of three judges on an illustrious panel which also features:

  • Tim Benson: Royal Institute of Oil Painters Vice President and figurative artist
  • James Lloyd: BP Portrait Award winner

 

We asked John how the selection process and judging works…

 

What makes a great portrait?

I’ve got criteria in my consciousness: it’s worth noting that all three of the judges are painters. Some selection committees feature curators or sponsors, and they may have very different criteria.

In turn, the public thinks differently about portraiture – there is a great love of hyperrealism, for example. I for one am concerned more with the textures, mark-making and other traditional indicators of what makes a good painting.

You can’t define what makes a great portrait rigidly… there are no rules that cannot be broken or bent.

Was there consensus among the judges?

Most of the time there was, yes, but discussion arose if one of us was having difficulty accepting a work. What is very interesting is that we as judges will rarely know if there’s a true likeness in the portraits we are judging.

Everyone can make a judgement on likeness if it’s someone well known like the Queen, who has been painted by James Lloyd. For the purposes of this prize, where we are unlikely to meet the sitters, we are judging more on aesthetic qualities and medium handling, and colour and composition.

 

Some of the selected portraits:

 

 

How were the judges chosen?

We first approached Tim Benson, a distinguished and successful portraitist. He suggested an equally distinguished portrait painter, James Lloyd, who has work in the National Portrait Gallery and has been commissioned to paint many eminent personages. His recent portrait of the author David Lodge hangs in the new library at the University of Birmingham. Why I was nominated by the RBSA to complete the panel is a bit of a mystery (at least to me)!

How were entries judged?

Digital images were sent to the three selectors in advance of meeting so we had the opportunity to individually make some initial judgements.

We then met for a day in Birmingham and went through the images without any preliminary discussion. Works that received three votes were accepted, those getting zero to one votes were rejected, and those getting two votes were the subject of friendly discussion.

Fortunately, there were no problems in reaching an agreement.

What were the main challenges for the judges?

It is quite surprising that there weren’t any major challenges as the judges had not worked together before in this way. There are no widely accepted or firm criteria to clarify what constitutes a good portrait, so a wide variation in the judges’ opinions might have been expected.

Fortunately, this did not occur. We have yet to decide which works will be awarded prizes and this will be done by viewing the exhibition ‘in the flesh’ once it is hung. This prize judging is scheduled for 24th July.

What would you say to everyone who entered?

We would like to warmly congratulate the successful entrants. The overall quality of the work submitted was very high, and so it was inevitable that many very deserving works had, unfortunately, to be rejected.

As the competition was so fierce this year we would strongly encourage those who were unlucky this time to submit work in the future.

 

Did you know?

  • This is the fifth biennial Portrait Prize and the 70 works selected represent the best in the field of portraiture across a range of media.
  • There’s a first prize of £1,000 and competition for the Portrait Prize is fierce. 
  • The Portrait Prize Exhibition opens on July 27 – come and view some of the best contemporary portraits in the country! You can also book on one of many portrait-themed workshops running this summer.
  • The full list of selected portraits can be viewed at the RBSA website and our Flickr page displays all the works.

In addition to a first prize of £1,000, a People’s Prize is awarded to the artist who receives the most votes from visitors to the exhibition, so make sure you attend and get voting! Prizes will be awarded on 18 August.

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