Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, has won the Critics’ Circle Visual Arts Award for 2023 for services to the visual arts. He received the prize recognition of the £41.3m renovation of the gallery, which re-opened in June.
The gallery, the brainchild of the historians Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington Macaulay, began as a collection of the pictorial record of Victorian British achievers and gradually became more of a representation of the nation’s profile. Arguably the first public gallery in the world to have been devoted to portraiture, it has historically commissioned and displayed portraits as much for the quality of the painting or photography as for the subject. Cullinan’s latest transformation includes creating an impressive new entrance, increasing the number of women artists represented in the galleries and interspersing photography with other media for the first time.
The prize presentation was made at Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea on 29 September during the British Art Fair (the event’s partner), with the chair of the Critics’ Circle Visual Arts and Architecture Section announcing that the intention was for the awards to become the pre-eminent prize for visual art.
“We are planning to build our awards ceremony into—in effect—the Oscars of the British art world”, said Alex Leith. “Our partnership with British Art Fair and our addition of two major new awards are sizeable stepping-stones to achieving this ambition. These are exciting times for the Critics’ Circle, and for the art industry as a whole.”
The award was first presented in 2011 and previous winners include Frank Bowling, Iwona Blazwick and David Chipperfield.
For each edition the winner of the main award is presented with a specially commissioned work of art by a young artist. This year, Adi Adivani, a postgraduate ceramicist at the Royal College of Art, created a trophy that reflected her interest in the divided cube motif, which is an exploration, according to a statement on her website, of the “symbolic divisions between bodies”.
The Denise Sylvester-Carr Unsung Hero award, meanwhile, was presented to Nicholas Easthaugh. Easthaugh is an authority on the research of historical pigments and the founder of Pigmentum Project, which has created the standard reference analytical data on ancient pigments and led advances in the detection of forgeries.
A new award for 2023 was the public gallery exhibition of the year, won by the National Gallery for its show St Francis of Assisi, which included representations of the saint across the centuries from Botticelli to Stanley Spencer.
Also presented for the first time was the private gallery of the year, which went to the Philip Mould Gallery for the show Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin. The show chronicled the life and work of British artist Biffin, who was born with no arms and vestigial legs, as she rose to become a prominent portrait painter of the early 19th century.