National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh: The BP Portrait Awards 2020

BP Portrait Awards 2020 Cropped
BP Portrait Awards 2020 Cropped

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Note: closed due to current public health situation.

Until 22nd March

Now in its thirtieth year, the BP Portrait Award is known as a showcase for some of the very best portrait painters from across the world. Previously a fixture at the National Gallery, London, the Award is now in its tenth year at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and remains a highlight of the art calendar. The exhibition is housed in the beautiful and historic Gallery on Queen Street, set amongst famous portraits of royalty – both the pop-culture kind and the divinely chosen – it seems the perfect setting. The collection is carefully-curated, and every work is given equal attention, ensuring each is readily appreciated. 

Each year a huge number of hopeful artists submit paintings: this year a total of 2,538 from 84 countries were whittled down to a mere 44. Each work is considered anonymously, and the board of judges assesses the paintings based on ‘their technique, quality, and what they disclose of the artist’s approach to the subject and how this resonates with the viewer’. 

While the painting of portraits is a somewhat historic genre, it offers a view of a person’s relationship and character that no photograph ever could. Each artist explains a little about the sitter with each painting, and this offers a very intimate view into the reading of the works. Whether it be an artist’s Grandmother, friend or just a model, you really get the understanding that every artist has truly connected with their sitter and produced a work reflecting that. There is no shortage of technical skill on show, with photorealism being showcased alongside far more abstracted portraits, offering an exciting duality to the exhibition.

I find that people enjoy portrait exhibitions as everyone knows what people look like, so the subject matter is instantly recognisable, added to the fact that human relationships are relatable, and as if to prove this, the exhibition has been very well-attended.

Charlie Schaffer - Imara in Her Coat
Charlie Schaffer – Imara in Her Coat, oil on canvas, first prize winner


The first prize was won by Charlie Schaffer for Imara in her Winter Coat, a mannerist-style portrait of his close friend, while the Travel Award was won by Robert Seidel for his proposal to travel along the Danube and paint portraits along the way.

Gandee Vasan - Aunty Therese
Gandee Vasan – Aunty Therese, oil on canvas


Highlights for me were found in Gandee Vasan’s Aunty Therese and Sarah Jane Moon’s Dr Ronx, both of which I feel convey a real sense of character.

Sarah Jane Moon - Dr Ronx
Sarah Jane Moon – Dr Ronx


Carl-Martin Sandvald - The Crown
Carl-Martin Sandvald – The Crown, oil on canvas, second prize winner


Massimiliano Pironti - Quo Vadis, oil on aluminium panel
Massimiliano Pironti – Quo Vadis, oil on aluminium panel, third prize winner.


I highly recommend taking the time to wander down to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and seeing the exhibition while it stays on till the 22nd March. 

1 Queen Street,
Edinburgh EH2 1JD

Image: Leo Sartain

With grateful thanks to Leo Sartain for this review.

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