Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘National Portrait Gallery’

The Taylor Wessing Prize 2019

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th November, 2019

Non NPG Work - Competition Exhibition – Born DigitalPeople watching is one of my favourite occupations, honed on the terraces of Parisian cafés or the Grand’Place in Brussels. But not everyone appreciates being studied intently, perhaps understandably, which is one reason why photographs have such immense appeal. You can stare at them as hard and as long as you like; what’s more, the image is of a precise moment captured. The very best can linger in one’s mind for decades. So I always look forward to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This year’s opened today and runs until 16 February. The competition attracted around 1,600 entries, from 70 countries. Interestingly, the NPG chose as its main publicity shot for the exhibition the photo I liked best, of an Estonian lady of a certain age, in big round spectacles (a la Iris Apfel); the somewhat vacant expression on her face probably reflects the depression to which the sitter is prone; her photographer daughter, Sirli Raitma, suggested doing various pictures of her in different dress in an effort to lift her mood.

However, the winner of the £15,000 first prize was Los Angeles-based Pat Martin, for a series of uncompromising shots of his late and voluminous mother; she looks as if she could be a fairly terrifying figure, though the dog T-shirt she wears in one photograph suggests a certain degree of humour, too. She struggled with addiction throughout her life, putting strains on her relationship with her son, but his taking photos of her helped them to reconnect. As Pat Martin comments, “For most of my life, I misunderstood my mother and witnessed how the world misunderstood her. Photographing her became a way of looking into a mirror and finding details I never noticed.” As an outside observer, one can intuit the pain in that experience, as well as a degree of resolution.

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Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th July, 2017

Rembrandt sheet of figuresThe National Portrait Gallery in London has put on some blockbuster exhibitions in recent years but the show The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, which opens tomorrow, conquers in a more subtle way. The Old Master European portrait drawings, ranging from Leonardo’s study of a male nude to Rembrandt’s sheet of figure studies is both intimate and intense. I have previously seen Old Master drawings mainly in folders or drawers at Chatsworth and other great houses in England and beyond, but seeing this captivating miscellany in mellow light on the bottle green walls of a windowless gallery really entices the observer into a personal relationship between both sitter and artist — a sort of triangular dynamic that clicks in when one stops in front of each portrait. Most are quite small and drawn with pale inks, but that in a sense draws one in closer. Some of the subjects are known court characters, or friends of the artists, while others are anonymous but full of character. One can sense their personalities across half a millennium. I particularly like the portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger, including a series borrowed from the Royal Collection, not least the stern yet somehow vulnerable, somewhat androgynous Woman Wearing a White Headdress. The joy of a July morning’s Press View today was that the gallery was almost empty, so I could linger and savour. But I suspect the exhibition will soon bring in the crowds, and rightly so.

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Russia and the Arts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th March, 2016

Russia and the ArtsIvan MorosovOne hundred and sixty years ago, the National Portrait Gallery in London was founded, to house pictures of celebrated Britons. By a quirky coincidence that very same year, a similar but private institution was established in Moscow by the millionaire philanthropist, Pavel Tretyakov, who personally bought or commissioned portraits of notable Russians. His collection survived the Boshevik Revolution, becoming the State Tretyakov Gallery, one of the jewels of Moscow’s cultural crown. In a splendid example of cultural exchange (all the more remarkable because of the curent poor political relations between Britain and Russia these days), the two galleries have each arranged exhibitions of some of the other’s finest pieces. The NPG show (which runs until 26 June) offers a sumptuous selection of portraits from Russia’s golden age from the late 19th century up to he outbreak of the First World War. The names of many of the sitters will be familiar to all: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Thcaikovsky et al, but seeing them as vivid personalities captured on canvas is a rare treat. One can also chart some of the evolution of style and technique in Russian art from the portraits, from Realism through to Impressionism. In brief, this is an exhibitiion that should not be missed. A once in a lifetime opportunity for Londoners. There is also a beautiful companion book, Russia and the Arts, by Rosalind Blakesley.

{Illustration: Ivan Morosov by Valentin Serov}

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Sargent’s Portraits of Artists and Friends

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th February, 2015

Saregent 2Sargent 1The American artist John Singer Sargent was often dismissed in the latter half of the 20th century as a darling of high society who was commissioned to produce sumptuous portraits of the rich and famous. In recent years, the critical appraisal has tended to be kinder and the exhibition of his portraits of artists and friends that opened today at the National Portrait Gallery in London should see it sky-rocket. Sargent was prolific, but his work is by no means much of a muchness. Moreover, as this wonderful exhibition shows, his artistic sensibility, as well as his technique, evolved in fascinating ways throughout his life, the early part of which was spent wandering round Europe with his family;,later he had bases in America and London. As well as the formal representations of the great and the good there are sensitive pictures of struggling artists and other friends or characters who interested him, as well as evocative renditions of place. At one stage Sargent was clearly experimenting with Impressionism. His mural work — most spectacularly visible in Boston — is represented in the NPG show by photographs, which along with the concise but illuminating texts posted round the gallery help one to get a deeper understanding of the man and his diverse visions. In short, the exhibition is a triumph and is well worth a special expedition.

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Virginia Woolf at the NPG

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th July, 2014

Virgina Woolf exhibition NPGVirginia Woolf at GarsingtonWhen I was doing English Lit A level, many moons ago, one of my classmates had a great passion for the writings of Virginia Woolf. She was not on the curriculum, and our English Master openly mocked this boy’s predilection, preferring instead the richness of Shakespeare, the subtlety of Jane Austen and the almost masochistically intensity of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Michael Holroyd’s seminal biography of Lytton Strachey was published that very year of 1967, yet it was only when I went to university that I got round to reading that and then dived into the world of the Bloomsbury Group like a young penguin that has just learned to swim. Once installed in Brussels, working for Reuters — and therefore at last in a financial position to buy lots of books — I savoured Virginia Woolf’s novels and all the volumes of diaries and letters and the wide range of related biographies as they came out. It was the first collective love affair of my life. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that this morning I went to the Press View of the new Virginia Woolf exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. All fans, like my school-friend, his name now long forgotten, to an extent feel they possess their idol and so it was too with me and Virginia nWoolf. Even her feminism stirred me. I was reassured in advance of the exhibition to know that it was curated by my old friend and former colleague at English PEN, the art historian and biographer, Frances Spalding, who indeed gave a brilliant unscripted tour of the exhibition to the thronging hacks at this morning’s Press View. Of course, I needn’t have worried. This is the first exhibition of its kind, amazingly, focused on the central figure of Virginia Woolf, but through photographs, paintings, letters and ephemera following her sensitively through the various phases of her life and her growing struggle with depression. Having lost so many dear friends in the First World War, she was metaphorically pummeled to the ground by the Second, with the complete destruction of one of her London homes, and the horror of more human losses. Inevitably her end is seen as tragic, with her suicide by drowning in 1941, her husband Leonard no longer able to haul her up from the depths of despair. But mercifully, she had retrieved her diaries from a bomb-damaged house and these were later stored in a bank vault by Leonard. Their later publication told us so much about the author, her life and loves (of both sexes), but also so much about England in an era now gone and of her passion for London. All this and more comes out so clearly in the exhibition, which should not be missed. And highlighted on one wall is a quote that remains in my mind above all else that she wrote: “Thinking is my fighting”.

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An English Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th August, 2013

John ProfumoAn English Affair 1Fifty years ago this summer, British newspapers — which still had many millions of readers, especially on Sundays — were full of the Profumo affair, involving a government Minister (John Profumo), a good time girl (Christine Keeler), a society osteopath (Stephen Ward) and a Tory viscount (Bill Astor). When I gave a talk about it to around 60 mature ladies at a women’s club in Rainham, Essex, last night, it was striking how clear the scandal was in most of their minds, after all this time. For those people under 60, and therefore probably too young to have known what was going on in 1963, I can make no better recommendation that Richard Davenport-Hines’s book, An English Affair (William Collins, £9.99). Davenport-Hines — whose earlier books include a biography of the poet W H Auden — is scrupulously fair in his assessment of the main characters and clearly feels, as I do, that all of them were dealt with harshly, not least Dr Ward, who committed suicide under the pressure of a trial on the trumped-up charges of living off immoral earnings. The police clearly used underhand tactics that produced tainted evidence, and some in the judiciary were complicit, with the gutter Press harassing anyone remotely connected with the affair and cheering on what was in effect a witch-hunt. Davenport-Hines makes a convincing case that this was a last outraged stand by the British Establishment to preserve what had become outdated standards of behaviour and values. Hypocrisy pervades the sad story, and 50 years on it is startling to remember that straitlaced Britain then was a country in which male homosexuality was totally illegal, as was abortion, divorce was difficult (usually involving the man arranging a staged assignation with a woman so adultery could be claimed) and the upper classes still dressed for dinner. What makes An English Affair truly remarkable is that it is far more than just an excellent restaging of the Profumo Affair; it is in effect a social history of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, on a par with the work of writers such as the late social historian Arthur Marwick, but considerably more entertaining. There are some super photos in the book, and anyone who wants to see more of the main characters can still catch (until 15 September) the small but worthwhile “Scandal 63” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which includes the celebrated image of a naked Christine Keeler astride a chair.

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Road to 2012: Facing East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th August, 2012

photos by Joe Bullock and Lucas Seidenfaden

Many of us who live in London’s East End viewed the hosting of this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics with a certain trepidation. And it is true that the Central Line — the quickest way for me to get into the centre of town from my home in Mile End — is hecticly busy at the moment all through the day. The only consolation of having to stand in sweltering conditions in the train is the extraordinary array of often quite beautiful people from all over to world to look at, for every taste. Anyway, though the Games are not quite over yet I think it’s fair to say that they have been a triumph. Moreover, as someone who has little interest in sport, for me the associated Cultural Olympiad, now culminating in the London 2012 Festival, has been spectacular. I have only managed to get to a few events, but they have been varied and stimulating. This morning I went to Four Corners in the Roman Road in Bethnal Green, a centre for film and photography that is currently hosting an exhbition of photos ‘Road to 2012: Facing East’. The work on display is by students in Fine Art and Photography at the University of East London and focuses on how the Games have impacted on the area, particularly Newham. There is an interesting variety of approaches, from Joe Bullock’s take on some of the characters who usually frequent the Lee Valley to Johanna Lees’ portraits of residents of one Stratford Street — all caught looking grave, or at least ambivalent. Contributors to the exhibition come from countries as varied as Cyprus, Germany, Estonia and the United States, with a range of styles and moods which means at least one will really appeal to any viewer. The exibition at Four Corners runs until 9 September and is a London 2012 Festival Project in partnership with the National Potrait Gallery and BT.Link:

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BP Portrait Award 2010

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th June, 2010

Yesterday I attended the Press View of the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London, along with not just fellow hacks but also several of the artists and some of the sitters — including Soho figure Molly Parkin in a suitably over-the-top headdress. Not present, of course, was the subject of the winning portrait of artist Daphne Todd’s 100-year-old dead mother. It’s a troubling piece, the match-stick thin corpse, mouth open, her head propped up on plumped up white pillows. The sense of unease the picture evokes is deepened by the fact that it is painted on two over-lapping boards, highlighting the transition from life to death. As always, there were some pictures that I really liked but which didn’t get any prize or honourable mention, notably Raoul Martinez’s beautiful study of Alan Rickman (in one corner of an otherwise white canvass) and Paul Beel’s powerful portrait of a super-fit Nigerian  illegal immigrant in Italy, ‘Free David’.


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Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th November, 2008

An impressive (free) exhibition of photo portraits by young photographers, photography students and gifted amateurs opens today at the National Portrait Gallery in London (where work by the American super-photographer Annie Leibovitz is coincidentally currently on display). There is something about good portrait photographs which I find eerily compelling, as they can give one an entry into the sitter’s soul. Amongst the most treasured volumes in my library are books of black-and-white prints by Bill Brandt, John Deakin and Richard Avedon, and the walls of my study are covered in signed, framed photos of people I have written about, including W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas and Oscar Wilde.

Over 2,500 people entered this year’s Taylor Wessing prize (sponsored by the European law firm of the same name). The winner was Lottie Davies, for her representation of a friend’s nightmare of giving birth to quintuplets, though I have to say I was more struck by Hendrik Kertstens’ ‘Bag’, a witty and evocative potrait of a young Dutch woman with a plastic bag on her head, shaped like a seventeenth-century cap, echoing Vermeer and other old Dutch masters. Kerstens was awarded the second prize. Otherwise, the images which really struck me were not those of beautiful young women (or indeed men), of which there were plenty, but the characterful lined faces of novelist Doris Lessing and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and a chilling picture of an almost zombie-like Vladimir Putin.

The exhibition runs until 15 February and as often at the NPG, there is an accompanying book (NPG, £12.99), with a forward by Ben Okri and interviews with the prizewinners by Richard McClure.


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Pride in Soho

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th August, 2008

The LibDem LGBT group DELGA had a stall at Soho Pride this afternoon, so I stopped by for a couple of hours to help man it. It was encouraging to see how many of the (predominantly young) crowds of thousands milling around came up to sign DELGA’s petition against homophobic bullying in schools — a problem that is still prevalent (and even tolerated by some teachers), despite positive changes in legislation and public attitudes in Britain.

Although I have never lived in Soho, it has been a sort of ‘second-base’ for me in London for over 20 years, and I have been a member of the Soho Society for a long time. That is why I came up with the idea of my little book ‘Soho Characters of the Fifties and Sixties’, which the National Portrait Gallery published in 1998 and which completely sold out (though, alas, it has as yet not be reprinted). I still enjoy calling in on various places in the ever-changing yet always fascinating area. This afternoon, as often, I tried ‘something old and something new’: a glass or two of chilled rosé at the French House and a delicious Olivier salad at a new Georgian café round the corner, called (and run by) Romeo.

Links: and

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