Last year Nick Lord became Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2013. This title was won by taking part in Sky Arts’ series of the same name. Portrait Artist of the Year was based around a competition format in which contestants were set time limits in which to produce portraits of a given subject. The artworks they produced were then judged by a panel of representatives from the world of arts and culture. As high culture’s answer to the X Factor, this was surely an appeal to a wider audience than is normally reached by traditional arts programming. In particular, the bizarre choice of Frank Skinner as a presenter reveals a lot in regards to how producers are trying to broaden the programme’s appeal.
In winning the competition, Nick Lord received a £10,000 commission to paint the Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel. The follow-up programme Portrait Artist of the Year: Painting Hilary Mantel sets out to follow Lord every step of the way, a bold claim for a programme only 23 minutes in length.
The familiar face of Joan Bakewell, who along with Skinner, presented the original series, introduces the programme and is also heard in brief pieces of narration that create linking sequences throughout the programme as it moves between the views of the artist, Nick Lord, and his subject, Hilary Mantel.
The narrative throughout the programme is split between Lord, in his studio in Cardiff, and Mantel in her home in Devon. This creates a juxtaposition between creator and subject that highlights the differences in which their roles are portrayed.
On the one hand, we have Lord, who is happy he can now afford to pay rent for his studio from the commission. He talks us through the process of creating the piece in a very technical way, which invokes us to appreciate the skill of his work. This is reinforced by the use of shots that feature close-ups on his hands painting, or his eyes surveying the subject and his work, bringing the tools of the artist to centre stage.
In contrast to this, from her sea view home in Devon, Mantel discusses her role as the subject within a wider cultural context of portraiture, comparing the process with that of royalty and nobility being painted, an area that she is familiar with through her own literary work in historical fiction.
Mantel positions herself as an active producer of meaning in the piece, with Lord being tasked with representing these meanings within his work. It is particularly revealing at then end of the programme that Mantel refers to the process of creating the work as a ‘negotiation’.
Lord’s completed painting is unveiled at the British Library, where it will become a permanent part of their collection. The prestige of this cultural institution is reinforced by a striking shot in which the entrance of the library looms overhead, impressive and imposing.
The programme has a circular narrative in that the first scenes we see take place at the ceremony before piece is unveiled, returning there once again at the end to witness the reveal. This sets up a sense of suspense throughout the programme, building up to the ‘big reveal’ at the end. What will the piece look like? Or more importantly judging by the number of shots focusing on the author’s face, will Hilary Mantel like it?
The camera positioned behind a group of people creates the sense that we are witnessing the event, the spectacle, first hand. We are part of that crowd of onlookers awaiting the unveiling, and more significantly, the reaction of the subject and our peers.
Even though the competition is over, the process of creating the piece is still framed as a challenge. The emphasis on the prestige of the subject and the surroundings in which the work will be placed suggests that this challenge is one of acceptance, of producing work that is ‘worthy’ of being showcased in such a renowned cultural institution.