Tony Bevan Self-Portraits

Press Release                                      

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Until 11 December 2011

Room 32, Balcony Gallery
Admission free  

The first display to focus solely on the self portraits of British artist Tony Bevan is to open at the National Portrait Gallery tomorrow. Departing from the traditional concern of self portraits to record personal appearance, the five displayed works, in acrylic and charcoal, show the artist’s head and neck distorted, abstracted and embellished through strong lines and vibrant colours.

One of Britain’s leading painters, Bevan has explored his own image in paintings that have radically extended the tradition of self-portraiture. From the 1980s, when he first attracted critical attention, to the present, this display shows the development of his searching and unconventional approach to the self-portrait. 

Working in the isolation of his studio, Bevan uses a mirror and sometimes photographs to make drawings that form the basis for his paintings. Using his own features as a starting point, Bevan’s engagement with his image moves through a process of physical transformation, from imitation to imaginative invention. Drawing and painting on the canvas while it is laid directly on the floor, Bevan’s expressive involvement with his appearance explores an inner, private world of feelings and ideas.

Tony Bevan RA was born in Bradford, England, in 1951 and lives and works in London. He studied at Bradford School of Art (1968-71), Goldsmiths' College, London (1971-74) and at the Slade School of Fine Art, London (1974-76). He was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 2007. Bevan’s work is characterised by the use of expressive lines and imbued with psychological intensity. He is well known for his figurative work, particularly depictions of the human head, but he has also addressed architectural subjects. His work belongs to collections throughout the world, including the National Portrait Gallery which commissioned his striking portrait of the concert pianist Alfred Brendel.

Tony Bevan Self-Portraits is part of the Gallery’s ongoing Interventions series of displays curated by Paul Moorhouse, which commenced in 2006 with Andy Warhol: 10 Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century. Drawing on significant works loaned to the Gallery to focus on important 20th-century artists who have extended portraiture in innovative ways, the Interventions series has included Bridget Riley: from Life, John Gibbons: Portraits, Frank Auerbach: Four Portraits of Catherine Lampert and Anthony Caro: Portraits. 

Paul Moorhouse, 20th Century Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘In presenting radical approaches to the genre of portraiture, I have long felt that Bevan’s way of working would add fresh insights – not least in exploding the long-held assumption that a portrait has to depict a person’s features literally.’

To coincide with the display a new fully illustrated book, Tony Bevan Self-Portraits, by curator Paul Moorhouse will be the first publication to focus on the artist’s continuing practice of self-portraiture. Featuring over 30 works, the book is published in hardback on 26 March 2011. Signed copies are available from the Gallery priced £25.

For further press information, please contact: Neil Evans, Press Office, National Portrait Gallery: Tel 020 7312 2452 (not for publication); Email

To download press images:


Self-Portrait Neck, 1988
Acrylic and charcoal

Private Collection
Self-Portrait Neck belongs to a cycle of six related paintings, each comprising the same intensely focused motif. A close-up view of a head and neck represents the artist himself. Immediately striking is the unconventional angle and attitude employed. Using a mirror and referring to photographs, Bevan has presented his head obliquely. This is shown within an ambiguous space devoid of reference points. Only his isolated presence animates the resulting void.

Self-Portrait, 1992
Acrylic and charcoal

National Portrait Gallery
This self-portrait is one of several works in which the artist’s attention shifts to his own body. Charcoal and pigment define his naked torso and shoulders, but not in strictly literal anatomical terms. Certain parts have previously been interpreted by some commentators as wounds and scars. However, these marks may also be seen as expressive rather than simply descriptive. They provide a structure for feeling. 

Head and Neck with Prop, 1994
Acrylic and charcoal

Private Collection
Within Bevan’s imagery, one of the oddest shapes is the prop motif, visible in Head and Neck with Prop. Returning to the earlier theme of a head and extended neck seen in Head and Neck (1988 -– also shown here), the prop device is an imaginative invention. Here it appears to support the precarious hand and neck structure. It also introduces a visual tension, as if preventing the head from slipping beneath the edge of the canvas below. 

Self-Portrait, 1994
Acrylic and charcoal

Private Collection
Painted around the same time as Head and Neck with Prop, which is also shown here, in this self-portrait the artist again presents his own head supported by an elongated neck. Here, however, there is no propping device and the neck is even more exposed. Surrounded by space, the resulting image seems invested with a sense of vulnerable isolation.

Self-Portrait after Messerschmidt, 2010
Acrylic and charcoal

Private Collection
Bevan has long been fascinated by the sculpted ‘character heads’ made by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt between 1770 and 1783. These sculptures were based on the earlier artist’s radically contorted facial expressions. In 2004, Bevan began a series of paintings in which he focused on his own extreme facial expressions in a manner derived from Messerschmidt. These recent paintings take self-portraiture even further from the literal depiction of personal appearance, creating images that have an independent, vital character. 

National Portrait Gallery opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm  (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm) Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross Recorded information: 020 7312 2463 General information: 020 7306 0055 Website:

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