By the turn of the twentieth century photography had made portraiture largely the province of the well-off and of businesses and institutions. The century began under the long shadow of the influence of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and with the swagger of John Singer Sargent, who it is said made the rich 'understand how rich they really were'. The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, founded in 1891, gained royal status in 1911 and was able to boast Whistler, Sargent and George Frederic Watts among its early members.
The early decades of the century were also dominated by the Slade-trained portraitists William Orpen, John Rothenstein and Augustus John. But some of the century’s most iconic portraits have been made by those who are better known in other genres, such as Wyndham Lewis’s Edith Sitwell, Graham Sutherland’s Somerset Maugham, Stanley Spencer’s nude self portraits and David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.
The strength of modern British portraiture is also illustrated by the fact that the portraits of some British artists, such as Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, have helped create their international reputation.
While the Royal Society of Portrait Painters may still be the focus for those seeking to commission an established portraitist, the 35-year-old BP Portrait Awards offer an annual opportunity to see innovative approaches to portraiture.