Benjamin Sullivan on ‘Connections’

What could a leading portrait painter make from the collection at the Fry Art Gallery? That’s the question raised – and answered – by the new exhibition, Connections, which runs at the Gallery from the 9th September to the 29th October 2017.

Connections is curated by Benjamin Sullivan. Benjamin has established himself as a major figurative painter. He has been elected to the New English Art Club and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and has work in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy and Parliament House, Edinburgh. As artist in residence at All Souls College, Oxford, he completed The All Souls Triptych, which is now installed at the college. He is the winner of the 2017 BP Portrait Award.

Ben Sullivan - Breech! Cropped
Detail from Benjamin Sullivan – Pencil Study for Breech!

For the Fry Art Gallery Blog, Benjamin has given his reflections on his selection of works for the show and on portraiture at the Fry Art Gallery.

“The North West Essex Art Collection, whilst not being known for its connection with portraiture, nevertheless boasts a fair number of figurative works – some familiar, others less so. Taking the term ‘portrait’ in its broadest sense, my selection draws from a wide variety of styles and media to form the basis of this show.

Detail from John Aldridge – Lucie Weaving a Rug

We start with Sir George Clausen’s gentle portrayal of Reverend Court. Stylistically incongruous compared to the rest of the Collection, this sympathetic work nonetheless demonstrates Clausen’s talent as a portraitist – capturing a young, and what we imagine to be, congenial clergyman. As we move into the 20th century, Court’s presence is nicely complemented by Duffy Ayers sensitive portrait of Kitty Wilson and John Aldridge’s penetrating self portrait of 1946. More works by Aldridge are shown on the opposite wall focused around the commanding domestic interior Lucie Weaving a Rug. Demonstrating a pleasingly free use of oils, this centrepiece is both colourful and restrained; we know this England. The same can be said of Charlotte Bawden’s post impressionistic portrayal of Eric Townsend with its stylistic association to the New English Art Club.

Rowntree - Adam with Pram Cropped
Detail from Kenneth Rowntree – Adam with Pram

A quartet of Ravilious lithographs, completed for the War Artists Advisory Committee, sets a different tone. These stylised figures do not attempt to be naturalistic portraits yet exist convincingly in their environments. Ravilious is present elsewhere in the show in the form of Thomas Hennell’s sparse and revealing pen and ink study. Other fine drawings surround Hennell’s work, revealing the depth of draughtsmanship in the collection. Watercolour is present too, with Kenneth Rowntree’s Adam with Pram making a pleasing appearance, being one of my personal favourites from the Fry Art Gallery. This tender depiction of fatherly love set against the ever present signs of war creates a tension which belies its benign execution. The contrast of loose and precise mark making aid this juxtaposition.

Ginny and Edie at the opening of ‘Connections’

A different use of watercolour is evident in John Bellany’s Self Portrait of 1986. This painting, in Bellany’s inimitable way, reaches for some inner truth in the honest portrayal of its subject. Also on display are a number of my own works, mostly drawings, made over the past few years. Chief amongst these is a pencil study for Breech!; a painting of my wife and daughter that won this year’s BP Portrait Award. The painting is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery.”

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