Northern artists vie for €20,000 portrait prize

Contemporary portraiture comes under the focus in the National Gallery of Ireland's Portrait Prize. Jenny Lee finds out how local artists are interpreting the modern face of our times

Belfast artist Connor Maguire portrays family life in 2019 in his oil painting, shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize
Belfast artist Connor Maguire portrays family life in 2019 in his oil painting, shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize Belfast artist Connor Maguire portrays family life in 2019 in his oil painting, shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize

IDENTITY, privacy, place, family and social change are among the themes addressed by the artists who have been shortlisted for this year’s National Gallery of Ireland’s Zurich Portrait Prize.

From an initial pool of almost 300 entrants, 25 artists, including three from Northern Ireland, have made it through to the final stage of the competition.

The aim of the Zurich Portrait Prize, formerly known as the Hennessey Portrait Award, is to foster an interest in contemporary portraiture among artists and art lovers alike, while adding to the National Portrait Collection at the National Gallery of Ireland. The winner, who will be announced on October 24, will receive a cash prize of €15,000, and a commission worth €5,000, to create a work for inclusion in the National Portrait Collection. There will also be two awards of €1,500 for highly commended works.

Belfast artist Connor Maguire has won many awards for his work over the years, one of the most recent being the West Dean College Award, which gives him the opportunity to study under Harry Brockway, one of the finest wood engravers in the UK.

For this competition, Connor returns to traditional oil on canvas for his painting Portrait Of A Modern Family 2018, which depicts the hustle and bustle of a family’s everyday life. Everyone is focusing their attention in opposite directions, symbolising a missing connection where everyone should be sitting round a dinner table focusing on discussion with each other.

"What makes a painting successful is when someone can relate to it, so hopefully it strikes a chord with the viewer where they see a part of themselves in it," says the 41-year-old, whose painting depicts the pressure of juggling work and family life and comments on the increasing role digital technology plays within our homes.

Connor, who is dad of two boys, aged four and eight, admits the painting is based on his own family and his home.

"My painting shows a true reflection of what our house can look like most days at dinner time, as we try to maintain order in what looks like a chaotic scene. I suppose it's a kind of self portrait. I had the idea and themes in mind for a while, so I thought I would use my family members as a source of reference for the painting.

"The boy in red is my oldest child looking at his tablet while eating. My partner is the one reading the paper. I am the one holding the remote and my youngest is facing towards the television."

Connor admits he too is guilty of using modern communication to replace conversation and in handing his children a tablet to play when he needs peace to work.

"I remember growing up and we always made time to talk round the table at dinner time and we were not allowed to leave until everyone was finished. Technology of this kind never existed back then, but in the past 25 years technology has advanced so much that it has carved people into a different type of mould."

Also shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize is self-taught Belfast artist Gill Morrow, who has a degree in genetics. She creates portraiture in porcelain or oils/mixed media and illustrative works in graphite, pen and water colours.

Her porcelain bust entitled YES is a self-portrait celebrating the mood following last May's abortion referendum, a piece with which she wanted to reflect "the positive liberal shift that is so evident in the Republic".

Its sister piece NO is scheduled to appear at the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition at the Ulster Museum from October 19 to January 6, portraying "the atmosphere of conservative patriarchy in Ulster".

The final northern finalist is Cookstown-born Kyle Barnes, who is currently based in Southampton. His oil painting, Company Sergeant Gary Madden, reflects the post-traumatic stress suffered by members of the armed forces.

:: The Zurich Portrait Prize shortlisted artists’ work will be exhibited in Room 23 of the National Gallery of Ireland until January 13 2019. See Nationalgallery.ie. Connor Maguire's work can also been seen in the Eastside Visitors Centre, CS Lewis Square, Belfast until October 27 in the exhibition Tiny Beginnings, alongside other local artists including Colin H Davidson, Cupar Wilson and David Sweet.