BP Portrait Award

a man posing for a photo
Night Talk by Jiab Prachakul; Portrait ‎of Denis: Actor, Juggler and Fashion Model by Sergey Svetlakov; and Labour of Love by Michael ‎Youds.

The BP Portrait Award is a yearly event focused on the art of portraiture, and it takes place at the National Portrait Gallery located in London, United Kingdom. The competition inherited its current form from the John Player Portrait Award. In 1989, the multinational oil and gas corporation, British Petroleum (BP), assumed the role of the main sponsor, taking over from John Player & Sons, a company primarily involved in the tobacco industry. Various activist groups, notably Art Not Oil which is a component of the larger global Rising Tide network, have staged protests against the sponsorship primarily because of the sponsors' backgrounds.

Historical Antecedents: The John Player Portrait Award

Prior to being rebranded as the BP Portrait Award, this art competition was known as the John Player Portrait Award. The latter was financially backed by John Player & Sons, a corporation principally engaged in the manufacturing and distribution of tobacco products. The shift in sponsorship from a tobacco company to an energy conglomerate is worth noting as it reflects societal attitudes towards these industries, although it has also been a point of contention for many.

Transition to BP Sponsorship in 1989

British Petroleum, commonly referred to as BP, took over as the chief sponsor in 1989. BP is a London-based multinational corporation primarily involved in the exploration, extraction, refining, and marketing of oil and natural gas. The change in sponsorship was a significant milestone for the competition, not only in terms of the name and brand but also in terms of the implications it carried for the gallery and the artists involved.

Activist Opposition: Role of Art Not Oil

The inclusion of both John Player & Sons and BP as sponsors has not been without controversy. A number of protest groups have rallied against these sponsorships, the most prominent among them being Art Not Oil. This organization is a subset of the international Rising Tide network, which generally focuses on climate and social justice issues. The primary grievance against BP’s sponsorship has been the company’s involvement in the fossil fuel industry, which is often criticized for its adverse environmental impact. Art Not Oil, among other groups, argues that such corporations should not be allowed to sponsor art events as it serves to whitewash their public image.

National Portrait Gallery: The Venue

The National Portrait Gallery, based in London, England, serves as the venue for this annual art competition. Established in 1856, the gallery aims to promote the understanding and appreciation of portraiture in its various forms. The gallery houses an extensive collection of portraits featuring historically significant figures from British history. It offers not just a venue but also a platform for artists to gain exposure, collaborate, and engage with the art community.

Structure of the Competition

The BP Portrait Award is structured as an open competition, allowing both amateur and professional artists to participate. Entrants are required to submit their original work, adhering to guidelines that define what constitutes portraiture. Over the years, the competition has gained international recognition, attracting artists from around the globe. The award not only confers significant prestige but also offers monetary rewards to winners.

Ethical Considerations and Public Debate

The BP Portrait Award continues to stir public debate, mainly due to its choice of sponsors. The central point of contention lies in the ethical implications of receiving financial support from companies like John Player & Sons and BP, which are frequently criticized for their business practices. Despite the controversies, the award has persisted as an esteemed institution in the world of portraiture art.


The BP Portrait Award has a rich history, evolving from its initial days under the sponsorship of John Player & Sons to its current form sponsored by British Petroleum. Although it offers a prestigious platform for portrait artists to showcase their work, the competition remains a subject of public debate and protest, notably by environmental and social justice groups. Regardless, it remains an integral part of the art scene, particularly in the United Kingdom, providing a significant platform for artists specializing in portraiture.

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