New Portraits From BP Travel Award Winner Sophie Ploeg Inspired by Lacemaking In Bruges On Show At National Portrait Gallery

New Portraits From BP Travel Award Winner Sophie Ploeg Inspired by Lacemaking In Bruges On Show At National Portrait Gallery

Pleating Time by Sophie Ploeg, 2013 Copyright: Sophie Ploeg
Pleating Time by Sophie Ploeg, 2013
Copyright: Sophie Ploeg

NEW PAINTINGS FROM BP TRAVEL AWARD WINNER SOPHIE PLOEG INSPIRED BY LACEMAKING IN BRUGES ON SHOW AT NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY  

– Travelling through the fabric of time: Modern Reimaginings of Lace in Jacobean Portraiture at BP Portrait Award 2014 exhibition

The work of BP Travel Award 2013 winner Sophie Ploeg, a Bristol-based Dutch Artist, is on display at this year’s BP Portrait Award. Having studied Art & Architectural History at universities in The Netherlands, Ploeg, 39, won last year for her proposal to explore how fashion and lace was represented in 17th century art, as well as in modern applications. She has visited famous lace-making centres such as Bruges in Belgium and Honiton in Devon, modern lace makers and artists, antique lace collections and 17th century art collections, and has undertaken literary research.

Since receiving the BP Travel Award in June 2013, Dutch artist Sophie Ploeg has spent the past twelve months immersed in the tradition of lace in seventeenth-century portraiture, drawing on her findings to create ten new oil paintings, some of which will be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery alongside this year’s BP Portrait Award exhibition.

Now living in Bristol after moving to the UK from Holland in 2000, the forty-year-old artist developed her interest in fabrics several years ago when she began depicting textiles in her figure paintings and still lives.

In the 2013 BP Portrait Award, she exhibited her oil-on-panel Self-portrait with Lace Collar, a work that expertly juxtaposed the modern and antique.

The idea was also central to her winning proposal for the BP Travel Award which centred on how she would interpret the use of fabric and lace in seventeenth-century portraiture in a meaningful and contemporary manner.

‘In my proposal, I left the outcome of the project purposefully blank as I did not know where it would take me,’  she says. ‘All I knew was that I wanted to learn more about seventeenth-century portraits and the fabric, costumes and lace depicted in them. My work was already infused with history, heritage, femininity, fabric and lace and I thought that studying this period in history would deepen and enrich my work.’

Ploeg’s one-year travel commission, The Lace Trail, proved to be as much a passage into the past as a journey to any geographic location. The starting point for her research was the work of William Larkin, whose portraits of Jacobean courtiers perfectly illustrate the period’s richly decorated fashions, each sitter adorned in elaborate embroidery,  ruffs, needlelace or Italian cutwork.

‘The first half of the seventeenth century was a fascinating transitional period where portraiture hinged between Tudor and Baroque,’ says Ploeg. ‘It was also the period when lace first came into high fashion and it features in many portraits. Seeing Larkin’s paintings at the Holburne Museum in Bath, I was blown away by the huge display of colour and glamour.’

The trail continued in her homeland where she viewed the collection of portraits by Johannes Verspronck at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, taking particular inspiration from A Girl Dressed in Blue (1641), and the ‘stillness, beauty and grandeur’ of his portrait of Maria van Strijp (1652).

‘Verspronck painted lace as accurately and detailed as the English Jacobean painters, but added various methods to create greater realism, including shading and blurring,’ explains Ploeg. ‘I studied the portraits not only as an historian, but also as a painter. I looked for brush strokes, colour choices, glazing and layering techniques.’

By the 1600s, the lacemaking industry provided a living to thousands of women throughout Europe, their creations worn by all but the lowest classes. Made with a needle and single thread (needle lace) or with multiple threads (bobbin lace), the fabric could be unsewn, unlike embroidery, allowing clothing to be altered to easily follow the vicissitudes of fashion. Children as young as five started learning the craft in lace schools, while skilled lacemakers in Flanders, Spain, France and England met the increasing demand from the nobility for linen, silk, gold and silver lace to decorate collars, cuffs and other pieces of clothing.

‘A square inch would have taken a lacemaker a whole day of work in the seventeenth century,’ says Ploeg. ‘Lace machines took over the production in the nineteenth century, but no machine or modern hands can create the refined beauty we find in early lace.’

Ploeg’s research also led her to visit modern-day lacemakers in historic lace centres such as Bruges and Honiton, but she was most eager to source authentic early lace in order to paint from life. With lace held in museums not available to use, she hunted down samples in shops across Belgium and England. ‘Early lace is nearly extinct save for pieces in museum storage boxes. The fineness of the thread and the design is mind-blowing. It tells stories of art, wealth, fame, fashion and social history, and deserves to be seen and admired before it disintegrates into dust.’

Returning to her Gloucestershire studio, Ploeg crafted those themes into ten oil paintings, using her newly acquired antique lace to make accessories for her sitters. ‘A love for fabric has always been there,’ she explains. ‘As a child in Holland, my mother taught me how to sew and as a teenager I created my own clothes.’

For the series of paintings The Four Ages of Woman, the artist fashioned a collar shape commonly seen in seventeenth-century paintings.  ‘I used modern women, each in a different stage of their life and painted them as they are,’ she says. ‘I wanted to combine twenty-first century women with a piece of lace made and worn by women 400 years ago. It’s about connecting the past and the present.’

For the self-portrait, Pleating Time, Ploeg created her own ruff, a laborious process involving many metres of fabric gathered tightly together.  ‘Making a ruff is the most difficult thing, but I could not resist,’ she remarks. ‘The pleats function as a timeline, folded and pleated to make jumps in time; now and then, meeting here and there.’

Other paintings are rooted in specific portraits viewed on her travels: The Long Wait is a response to Marcus Gheeraerts’ Portrait of an Unknown Pregnant Lady; The Handkerchief Girl alludes to the fashionable handkerchiefs often found in Larkin’s portraits; and the whitened complexion of the woman in She Becomes Her duplicates the Jacobean vogue for Venetian ceruse and references the work of Robert Peake the Elder, serjeant-painter to King James I.

‘In She Becomes Her, I wanted to play with the idea of how a modern-day woman might deal with self presentation and how she gets represented by others, for instance in the media,’ says Ploeg. ‘The writing on the picture plane, the newspaper in the background and the sitter’s clothes and make-up all suggest she might be hiding her true self.’

Following the completion of the commission, Ploeg plans to continue her trail of discovery. ‘I can see new painting paths to explore further ahead,’ she says. ‘The world today is shaped by the past and so are my paintings. We still struggle with some of the same things that our ancestors struggled with – identity, gender, self-image, fashion, wealth, social class, equality and beauty. Times have changed, but we are still walking the same road.’

Taken from an Interview by Richard McClure from the BP Portrait Award 2014 book, a fully-illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition and featuring an introductory essay by Julia Donaldson and including over 55 colour illustrations, price £9.99 (pbk), available from the Gallery Bookshops and onwww.npg.org.uk

PUBLICATION – The Lace Trail  

Sophie’s book The Lace Trail will be available in the National Portrait Gallery bookshop and via her website www.sophieploeg.com In this publication she shares her findings on early 17th century portraiture in England and The Netherlands, the history of early lace, styles of painting lace, and of course the background story to her paintings and a catalogue section with all 10 paintings.

BP TRAVEL AWARD 2014 AND 2013

The winner of the BP Travel Award 2014, an annual prize to enable artists to work in a different environment on a project related to portraiture, was also announced last night. The prize of £6,000 is open to applications from any of the BP Portrait Award-exhibited artists.

This year the BP Travel Award 2014 has been awarded to Edward Sutcliffe for his proposal to document the Compton Cricket Club which was formed as an initiative to help encourage and empower the disaffected youth of an area of Los Angeles synonymous with poverty and crime. By spending as much time with the team as possible (either on the pitch or in their everyday lives) and seeing the impact playing cricket has had on people from some of the city’s toughest streets, Sutcliffe intends to draw and paint the players, producing portraits that show a fusion of two very different cultures and how the game of cricket with its ethos of fair play and honestly has been embraced by this community. Edward’s resulting work will be displayed in the BP Portrait Award 2015 exhibition.

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