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Art exhibition: 'A Portrait of Europe'

PUBLISHED: 16:47 11 August 2016 | UPDATED: 16:47 11 August 2016

A Portrait of Europe exhibition

A Portrait of Europe exhibition

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

A European project with its origins in the Kent countryside - 28 portraits of individuals from each of the European Nations - is on show in Chatham

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An exhibition entitled A Portrait of Europe opened in Folkestone at Sunflower House in late summer 2014 to coincide with the Triennial.

It was the brainchild of Briony Kapoor, of the Imos Foundation based in New Romney, whom readers of Kent Life may recall as prime mover for the murals throughout that town.

Now on show in Chatham Historic Dockyard at the Studio, The Portrait of Europe includes 28 portraits of individuals from each European Nation. So how did Briony hit on the idea?

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“It occurred to me one day when I was gazing out towards France and the continent. At the time I was feeling embarrassed that UKIP was making such a strong showing along the south coast. I felt that we should be presenting a friendly and welcoming face to our neighbours and compatriots in Europe. I decided on the spot to do something about this myself,” she says.

I wonder if it was difficult to find the artists to do these portraits, but Briony says previous links forged made it relatively easy.

“The Imos Foundation [In Memory of Satish, Briony’s late husband] had previously done a mural of people indigenous to Romney Marsh, so we already had several portraitists 
connected to our organisation with whom we had good working relationships and personal friendship. They were able to recommend others to join the project,” she explains.

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Visits to the National Portrait Gallery and to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition at the Mall Galleries also proved useful and there were many word-of-mouth connections as the project developed.

Each artist was provided with a small travel grant and sent off to the individual countries to choose a subject. The Holland subject, for example, is a bookshop owner and Briony has encouraged any visitors to the exhibition going to Amsterdam to stop by and let him know they had seen his portrait.

Quality control for the portraits was a key factor and Briony admits: “There was always going to be some variation in standard with a diverse group of artists, but we intended to maintain as high a level of work as we could.”

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The artists were chosen for their talent, 
although the modest budget was inevitably a constraining factor. “Those selected had to be artists who understood the rather idealistic concept. There was a lot of grace on the part of established artists who were paid the same as younger artists and agreed with the idealistic intent of the project,” adds Briony.

Artists evaluated each other’s work and made recommendations. “The final group of paintings was also assessed by the four Trustees and other experienced associates of the charity.

“During the course of the project one or two of the works had to be repainted or even begun afresh. This was generally for logistical reasons and once because the figure was subservient to the background, so a matter of composition rather than any question of skill.”

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The exhibition went on to Europe House in Westminster London, then to Storey Institute in Lancaster and the Hatton gallery in Newcastle. Recently it has been at the Colyer-Ferguson Building at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

“Funding is always a bit of a problem,” admits Briony. “But we are booked for Birmingham and Edinburgh in the near future.”

So what of the portraits? Did they end up being stereotyped? To find out, Briony devised a quiz for viewers to guess which portrait corresponded to which nation. The results were often surprising: “When offered the portraits with no labels, visitors could rarely get more than one or two correct. It was largely a matter of guesswork.

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“With labels giving the 
subjects’ names, between three and seven would be correct on average. The quiz seemed to lead visitors to an understanding that Europeans are all human beings, similar to themselves. That folk from within the EU could not be demarcated strictly by their nation of origin.

“I am sure that the exercise did make the concept of their European identity apparent to every one of them in the gentlest way. The response was warm, with good feeling for the whole idea of the show and demonstrated a surprising amount of fellow feeling among Europeans.”

“Of course, the audience is self-selecting in favour of Europe to a considerable extent, but there was a genuine curiosity about the subject.”

The biggest surprise was that the best quiz results came from a young couple from Singapore.

“Meanwhile, our own home-grown champion turned out to be an Immigration Officer who was trained to spot different nationalities. He was especially accurate on the portraits of Eastern Europeans!”

This may well be a hard act to follow, but Briony tells me that with the Trustees and the artists, she is discussing portraits of the 53 Commonwealth countries, with the possibility of presenting this to the Queen for her 95th birthday.

Get in touch

A Portrait of Europe will be on show at the Chatham Historic Dockyard, Studio, ME4 4TZ, from 20 July to 10 August and also on show at the Drill Hall Library, Medway Campus, 01634 883278, from 19 September to 7 October.

For more information, visit www.imosfoundation.org, where you will find the full catalogue of the show, plus information about the Foundation itself.

There is also a presentation by Briony Kapoor, Creative Director, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ox5QRC7loQ0, or type in A Portrait of Europe.

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