Bedford artist’s painting of Sir Lenny Henry shortlisted for BP Portrait Award 2020

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The portrait of Sir Lenny Henry by Martyn Burdon

Bedford-based artist, Martyn Burdon, has had his painting of Sir Lenny Henry accepted into this year’s BP Portrait Award. It’s the second time he’s been shortlisted for the competition.

The exhibition, usually open to visitors at London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG), is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. However, you can ‘virtually visit’ the exhibition via the NPG’s website.

The sitting for the portrait took place last October in Lenny’s production office in Shepard’s Bush. It is painted in acrylic on a Gesso primed wooden panel.

“I was born in the early 1980s,” Martyn told the Bedford Independent. “Lenny Henry has been a part of popular culture throughout my life [so] it was a great pleasure to try and capture a side of him.

“My original idea was to possibly depict Lenny Henry in character as ‘Elmore’ from the August Willson play ‘King Hedley II’, but this ultimately wasn’t pursued. Lenny proved to be a very captivating presence simply as himself.

“It seemed right to portray Lenny in quite a simple straightforward way, I wanted to try and capture some of his gravitas and vigour.

“He’s very well mannered and [a] gentle person, but also quite a physically imposing figure (he is very tall!), and I wanted to try and convey something of that strength.

“I think the direct gaze in the picture is quite poised and compelling, as you look at the painting, I think it feels as if you are maybe held in moment.

“I always like to use natural daylight during a sitting, I think it roots a portrait in a particular moment, and there was a particularly beautiful pearlescent light on the day of the first sitting. 

“I like to try and capture a fleeting moment, and work in a detailed but delicate and painterly way.

“Lenny was very pleasant company during the sitting, he gave me a fascinating insight into some of his recent work in the theatre, and it was very interesting to hear about the writing process behind his memoir.

“He also performed a Shakespearean soliloquy, and did a marvellous impression of Don Worrington to keep me entertained.”

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon
Martyn’s portrait of Matt Berry was shortlisted for the 2017 BP Portrait Award and was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery

Martyn Burdon studied art at A level but is otherwise self taught, having gained a BSc (Hons) degree in Product Design from Brunel University.

His work was selected for inclusion in the Derwent Art Prize (2018), Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize (2019) and his portrait of the actor Matt Berry was previously seen in the BP Portrait Award in 2017.

A physical exhibition of the BP Portrait Award 2020 is planned, to tour a series of locations around the country, if social distancing rules can be eased.


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