A portrait of Dame Kelly Holmes is the latest addition to the National Portrait Gallery as part of the BP Portrait award competition. The large-scale oil painting joins such important figures in the NPG’s Contemporary Collection as footballer Bobby Charlton and the UK’s “favourite” billionare, Sir Richard Branson. Glancing over the portraits in the Contemporary rooms of the NPG, I’d say that, aesthetically, they have a lot to offer. The variation in styles begins to be somewhat overwhelming, however, leaving one skimming over pieces with less initial impact, such as John Swannell’s photo portrait of Princess Diana with her sons (which at first glance I presumed to be a promotional shot from a 1970s family sitcom). Excluding this happy accident of a photo, most of the paintings could belong in any wing of the Tate Modern; some are so obscure that it seems the artists just decided to paint something in their characteristic style, the famous figures depicted being mere quirks that made the pictures noteworthy enough to get into the NPG. The portrait of Holmesis one of the exceptions in its initial straightforwardness, though she looks so remarkably sad one would guess she had had her two Olympic gold medals revoked. In fact, there is no allusion to her sporting career at all.
But it does leave us questioning the kinds of people our society chooses as role models. Why is it that we value these people? If their fame is celebrated in the form of a portrait, why are the reasons for their being celebrated so often left out of the picture? This is perhaps less surprising in the case of some of the well-known actors portrayed, such as Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren. Perhaps they’ve reached the stage when they’re famous for being famous, like the disreputable Kardashians or the wretched Jade Goody? We see faces such as those of Sir Roy Calne, surgeon extraordinaire, scientist Robert Winston and Body Shop founder and human rights activist Dame Anita Roddick, who have contributed to society in a slightly more productive way. But they are a lonely few in a sea of tabloid-worthy celebrities.
Kelly Holmes and J K Rowling are Orwellian Big Brothers, inspiration to the proles to make something, anything, of their lives. Congratulations to Dame Kelly for joining the ranks of 16th-century kings and 20th-century singers. Let’s hope it motivates the lazy nobodies to get out and climb the ladder so high they’re forced to cover their faces in public.