Sky Arts' Portrait Artist of the Year turns 10

Sky Arts' Portrait Artist of the Year turns 10

Monday, 18th December 2023
Dame Judi Dench on Portrait Artist of the Decade (Credit: Sky)
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Portrait Artist of the Year has grown to become one of Sky Arts’ defining series. Steve Clarke paints the picture

Over the past decade Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year has emerged as one of the channel’s flagship shows – and one in which skill triumphs over exhibitionism. As Sky Arts’ supremo, Phil Edgar-Jones, said: “The show is not all about loud, mad characters but people doing something well.”

He was speaking at an RTS London event, “Portrait Artist of the Year at 10”, where he was joined by members of the production team at independent producer Storyvault Films, and which was chaired by the company’s founder Stuart Prebble, also an executive producer on the show.

In the series, professional and amateur artists compete to paint a portrait of one of three famous sitters. The winning artist of each round, selected by three judges, advances to the semi-final and then to the final, with the winner receiving a cash commission to paint a celebrity and for the picture to become part of a national collection.

Lenny Henry, Tom Jones, and Nile Rogers are among those whose portraits have been painted for the programme. This year’s series began with a special Portrait Artist of the Decade episode, which saw the winners of previous series return to paint Dame Judi Dench.

If the format sounds like a no-brainer for audiences seeking some culture and to witness some exceptionally talented people willing to display their gifts and hard work on air, think again.

Edgar-Jones recalled how persuading his bosses at Sky to greenlight the first series was “not easy” and that “it was very difficult to get over the line”. After all, who would want to see a show literally watching paint dry?

He added: “Sky was in a very different place then. There was some scepticism over our ability to do arts and [a belief] that we were going to Americanise everything. There was a kind of Murdoch toxicity around it as well.”

The idea that the National Portrait Gallery would collaborate on the show by exhibiting the winning portraits was initially not one the gallery seemed hugely keen on. But today the institution is an enthusiastic supporter; the winner of the first series, Nick Lord’s portrait of author Hilary Mantel, is on permanent display at the British Library.

After the first series, presented by Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner, the show remained a tough sell, Edgar-Jones told the RTS.

Ten years later – the programme celebrated its 10th birthday in September – alongside Landscape Artist of the Year, Portrait Artist of The Year is among the crown jewels of the Sky Arts line-up. “They are the shows that define the channel,” noted Edgar-Jones. Stephen Mangan now co-presents with Bakewell.

Both series exemplify Sky Arts’ mantra, “We take the arts seriously, but we wear it lightly” – in other words, as Prebble put it, “credibility mixed with accessibility”.

“It’s a fine line to tread,” said Edgar-Jones, “because you want the discerning viewer to appreciate what you’re doing, but you also want viewers who are less familiar with art to find a way into it.”

He added: “We want to drive participation in the arts and not just have it as a passive experience. That way, you foster a much deeper connection with the audience…. The biggest thing we did to make Sky Arts accessible was to take it free to air.”

Prebble said that the best thing about the series for him was that it had helped turn scores of amateur artists into professionals: “The most difficult thing for artists is getting their work seen. If their work gets seen on the programme by a million people, a proportion of those people will commission them.”

‘Portrait Artist of the Year at 10’ was held at the Everyman King’s Cross on 8 November. The producer was Phil Barnes.