25 Portraits in Oil


IMGP678221st June is the midsummer solstice – a day to celebrate and more seriously to reflect on our connection to this spinning planet. On this special day, 25 performers spread throughout the National Portrait Gallery and simultaneously had oil poured over their faces, becoming living ‘portraits in oil’.  The aim was to raise awareness of what lies behind the Gallery celebrating 25 years of sponsorship by controversial oil company BP.

The performance took place days before the BP Portrait Award 2014 ceremony (on Tuesday) and exhibition opening (Thursday 26 June). It was carried out by a number of groups from the Art Not Oil coalition seeking an end to oil-industry sponsorship of the arts.

The number of portraits was chosen to reflect 25 years of BP’s sponsorship. Read this handy overview and timeline of BP’s poor environmental record over this 25 year period. Its impact is significant because it has such a long history of pollution and climate-altering. BP is one of the world’s oldest oil companies, alongside Shell, dating back to 1908 when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed. However, the story of Britain, fossil fuels and power goes much deeper into the past. This post tells some of that story linking to 25 portraits of historical British figures in the NPG’s collection. The story is counterpointed by some of my photos of these contemporary ‘besmirched’ portraits.


Early ideas of nature and sustainability

As Britain developed agricultural production and maritime trade between the 16th and 18th centuries, some were already raising questions about the exploitation of people and natural resources. For example, John Evelyn wrote the treatise ‘Sylva’ encouraging the planting of trees and giving voice to ideas of sustainability. John Tradescant travelled to collect plants and artefacts of indigenous Americans, forming the nucleus of Britain’s first public museum. Shakespeare’s writing expressed a humanist vision of nature. His legacy is now tainted through BP’s sponsorship of the RSC.

Growth of British empire and the Industrial Revolution

British inventors such as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt developed the technology to overcome difficulties of coal mining in the 18th Century. Humphrey Davy invented the miners safety lamp in 1815 which helped the coal industry to grow by mining further and faster.


This was an age of science applied to engineering, with figures such as Michael Faraday whose discovery of electrical conductivity led to a world of energy-hungry gadgets, or Baron Kelvin who developed the absolute temperature scale, useful in the study of thermodynamics and climate science.

There were voices for nature too, Romantics and visionaries, very notably William Blake, who saw nature and the imagination as one. John Clare was a Northamptonshire poet famous for lamenting the destruction of the English countryside due to the Industrial Revolution and the enclosures of common land. If he was alive today, his poems would no doubt have responded to the impact of fracking. There were also political radicals such as Thomas Clarkson and Joseph Sturge who formed the Anti-Slavery Society and helped bring an end to the transatlantic Slave Trade.

As the 19th Century progressed, the British Empire’s colonies spread, using the land for mining and crops in Africa, the Caribbean and India, and controlling economies of countries such as China and Argentina. This was a technocratic challenge, with many surveyors such as George Nares employed at land and sea. The British colonisers also controlled other peoples by imposing their beliefs, as we see in the portrait of Queen Victoria giving a Bible to an African ruler.


Meanwhile artists such as William Morris were arguing for manufacture that honoured nature, and British scientists such as Charles Darwin were leading the way in understanding the evolution of species. Today, oil is a major force behind the Sixth Mass Extinction, in process of wiping out much of our precious biodiversity.

The rise of oil and conflict

Before 1914 Britain rushed to explore new resources and technologies, as other nations sought to compete with its imperial power. In this era, the Titanic and Dreadnought ships were built, and Scott and Shackleton reached the South Pole in 1912.

British engineers were responsible for new technologies that created a vast demand for oil, driven in part by advances in military aircraft. John Alcock was soon to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight, in 1919. Supported by Shell Petroleum, the first internal combustion engines were developed from 1900 to 1914.

Winston Churchill successfully argued to replace coal with oil in Navy ships. This resulted in the British purchase of 51% of the Anglo-Persian Oil company, which became BP. Germany was also gunning to secure this source of oil, and many believe this oil struggle is the real spark for WW1.

IMGP6709After the war, in the 1930’s Shell-Mex and BP employed artists such as Graham Sutherland and writers like John Betjeman to promote motoring and the joys of oil.

World War II

The turning point that led to our current fossil fuel frenzy was World War II, the first war to be fought using aircraft and tanks. By now, most ships were fuelled by oil too. Many of Britain’s bombing campaigns, led by ‘Bomber Harris’, targeted Germany’s oil resources.

When the War ended Britain was involved in internationalist efforts for peace and conservation. Julian Huxley played a leading role in the foundation of UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund.

The escalation of nuclear weapons and use of nuclear power was a focus for the post-War peace movement. Although the USA invested most in this technology, Ernest Rutherford was a key British figure as he had discovered and split the atom. Some now believe that nuclear power is the solution to replace fossil fuels.

The North Sea era

In the 1970’s Britain hit an oil crisis as nations in the Middle East reclaimed and nationalised their oil rights. Middle Eastern oil went from 80% to 10% of BP’s supply. In 1975 it began to extract oil from the North Sea via Scotland. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher then oversaw the expansion of North Sea oil and gas, and BP privatisation.

IMGP6719In the 1980’s there was growing protest at the entanglement of art and unethical sponsors. After a protest at a Kokoschka exhibition, Tate ended sponsorship by an arms company. In 1989, the NPG ended tobacco sponsorship of the Portrait Award, but replaced it with BP.

Oil and power now

Iraq is in the news again. Wars over control of oil-rich Middle Eastern lands have intensified this century, despite knowledge that we must reduce our consumption of oil. Tony Blair took us into the Iraq War in 2003 and now colludes with companies such as BP to gain from war spoils.

The ‘laissez faire’ approach to trade begun by Richard Cobden in the 19th Century is now in full swing and we’re facing a new Transatlantic Trade deal that will make it possible for companies like BP to sue governments if laws reduce free trade and affect their profits.


The National Portrait Gallery contains portraits of many activists who have highlighted the wrongs in systems believed to good, or at least useful. The examples of Anti-slavery campaigners, Suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Anti-Apartheid campaigner Bishop Trevor Huddleston are inspirations to campaigners who aim for a transition beyond oil. Huddleston’s colleague, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, has recently said, “Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing or doing much about climate change. Today we have no excuse. Companies responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up. They need persuasion from the likes of us [and] our cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry.”





We can see how oil companies are denying the dire warnings about climate change and seek military action to protect supplies, with no regard for the impacts on people and other species everywhere. This performance today asked for BP to end ‘business as usual’, and asked for cultural organisations to be more aware how the sponsorship of culture serves to wash clean the reputations of companies like BP.

Watch the film here and full set of my photos here.


10 responses to “25 Portraits in Oil

  1. Hi Bridget … Nicely put together piece. But I have a problem with the comparison of the issues of smoking and weapons with oil. Neither smoking or weapons are vital for the continuation of modern life. Oil, on the other hand is the very life-blood of so much of what we consume and rely on today. 96% of transport is oil based. Food, clothes, drugs, and a vast array of stuff that we employ as a matter of routine is oil based. I think most people have little idea how we are all swimming in the stuff whether we like it or not. This is very different from cigarettes or weapons and I think this is where this campaign against Tate etc fails. Oil is vastly popular stuff and for those who wish to continue to live a life more or less like they do today there is no substitute. (Oil is at least 4 times more energy dense than any other fuel and its by-products are uniquely derived from it) Whether it’s the freedom to travel cheaply and easily, the availability of diverse chemicals/drugs etc, etc the bulk of society believe this is normal. To transition to a different perception will be a massive change and I see no evidence of even a minority wishing to ‘give up oil’. In fact there is no real appetite for a reduction in consumption as the graphs of oil production all show. The targeting of Tate et al is I think a distraction from this wider reality. Most oil consumption is actually invisible to us – it’s implicate in all aspects of our lives. it is we the “consumers” who must change and that change isn’t simply a matter of changing energy sources. Rather it will be to accept a way of life that requires us to ditch most of what we understand as ‘normal’ today. Few, very few, are ready for this but the truth is that because of Peak Oil we will be forced to make such decisions sooner than most realize. At that point the oil companies such as BP may well be bankrupt anyway.
    All the best … nick (Stewart)

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nick. I agree that we’re bound to oil in a way that seems inextricable, which is why the living portraits are all besmirched with oil. I agree that oil is in a very different category from tobacco and arms, although it’s that difference that makes it essential that fossil fuels are a focus for any campaigning that seeks a sustainable future. Where I disagree with you is in your belief that targeting oil sponsorship of the arts is a distraction from the wider reality. All the people involved in Art Not Oil are also activists in relation to this wider reality, whether using art, or more practical work in the ‘transition beyond oil’ movement. In their range of activism work, I know that they can feel the benefits of generating heat around the ethics of culture. It’s through cultural productions, with their kudos and publicity, that oil companies gain more legitimacy. The performances help to puncture that and prompt cultural consumers to consider the extractive economy that they are part of – and that they could contribute to shifting us out of. These performances don’t so much target the Tate et al (we love them, or rather the art they nurture) but the oil companies and the assumptions about their legitimacy. It isn’t just that they provide oil that we’re addicted to – it’s that they pollute horrendously, take little responsibility for clean-up, request and bolster aggressive action against protestors (see Shell and the execution of Ogoni activists), and fund lobbying that denies AGW and derails climate action. I do also disagree with the meme that we are all implicit in climate change because we all use oil. In a spectrum of responsibility, ordinary consumers are nowhere near the oil companies and other industrial behemoths. Massive ecological disruption will come before the oil runs out and the oil companies aim to extract every drop. And what’s worse, our Government is now openly making statements and paying subsidies to BP et al to do just this. See Danny Alexander’s speech of 12 June where he says “That means getting out every last drop of oil and gas that we can.” This performance pointed to portraits of former prime ministers and other influential people and asked what action lies behind these faces.

  3. By the way, it was an entirely silent, peaceful protest that lasted only 10 minutes and did not disrupt the experience of viewing for visitors. The gallery assistants/security were content to let it take place and were only concerned about the safety of the performers.

  4. The key thing here is how oil companies “gain more legitimacy”. They really don’t need more as they are about as legitimate (in most people’s eyes) as any business. The performances create the illusion that they can somehow produce something like ethical oil or fair-trade oil. An oxymoron if ever there was one. Of course they could ‘clean up their act’ – repair damage and treat people better where they operate. But is that enough? The performances represent the problem with oil as a special category rather than something that is intrinsically problematic. The oil companies are only successful because we buy this stuff – we own cars, we fly, we shop etc. We are responsible. We are not willing to face the changes that are necessary. The most ecological damage is caused by the close to 1,000,000,000,000 cars that currently exist in the world and all the other stuff we routinely consume that is produced as a byproduct of oil.
    Peak oil is not about oil running out. This is a common misunderstanding and Danny Alexander only displays his ignorance in his comment. The oil companies are very well aware that they will never extract “every drop”. In fact huge amounts will never be extracted – either because it’s technically impossible or too expensive. The issue is the rate art which the oil can be extracted – the flow rates – and the related cost. Both of these are currently at or nearly at their peak. This is why oil today costs around 6 times more than it did ten years ago and why ‘business as usual’ is becoming such an elusive goal. It is also why such problematic extraction technologies as deep sea, fracking and shale are being pursued. It’s not an oil “boom”,it’s an endgame.
    Governments are I think more or less aware of these issues but are caught between a rock and a hard place as there are no votes in telling people that they need to stop driving, flying et al. Massive investment in renewable energy would help but if the aim is simply to maintain our way of life as it is today this will fail. Cheap solar panels may, as Vinay has pointed out, help but they won’t provide the myriad of oil by-products that we are barely even aware of are fossil fuel products. So, until these particular circles are squared we will continue careering down this fossil fuel cup-de-sac.
    What the protests fail to recognize are these complexities that we are all caught up in. Painting (pun intended!) such a black and white picture of oil doesn’t I think help. We need to be honest and admit that oil has also had massive benefits for many millions. That without it many millions today would not actually be alive. But that’s another story!
    Thanks for engaging in this Bridget. I think it’s a discussion that needs to take place but is one that I don’t see happening anywhere at present.

  5. I valued very much reading both comments above. I agree with Nick that the vast majority of the public have not yet engaged with the need for change, and that it will be exceedingly hard but hopefully not impossible to disengage from the present practice of burning a precious resource. As the decades and centuries go by we will need to use oil more carefully. Changes in public attitude will come only slowly and will probably require more powerful presentations of the consequences of oil dependency than the very gentle and civilised direct actions of ArtnotOil. But this does not invalidate such actions at the Tate, RSC and National Gallery. The oil companies do use their wealth to encourage complacency in the public over what damage their activities cause, and art sponsorship is part of this effort to make them seem responsible members of the community. Any action to shake this complacency is worth doing. An aware public is more likely to take note of heavier messages. I wrote to Nationwide last year about their link up with Shell, saying that it put Nationwide’s reputation at risk, and got back a thoughtful 2 page letter indicating that my suggestions would be taken into account. I’m likely to do the same now with Waitrose, one of the UK’s more ethical supermarkets, which is opening mini-stores on Shell forecourts. Shell will be happy to have some of Waitrose’s environmentally friendly image rub off on them, but it could be very damaging for Waitrose’s reputation.
    I look forward to more witty and provocative activity from ArtnotOil.
    Neil P

    • Hi Neil … I would consider that a supermarket like Waitrose is, to all intents and purposes, an oil company. Their produce is flown and shipped, by oil, from a global market and their transport is oil based. Supermarkets have large car parks which encourage yet more consumption of oil. So whether or not they open stores on Shell forecourts is, I feel, of little significance. And, “ethical supermarket”? Really? Is there such a thing in mainstream culture? Given the nature of their business how can they be ethical?
      Indeed we will need to husband what’s left in future but, as this recent report shows, the UK will be out of fossil fuel very soon: http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/analysis/2345198/report-uk-fossil-fuel-reserves-will-be-gone-in-five-years-time
      In five years we will be required to spend a growing percentage on imports which increasingly we will not be able to afford. In sum … most are blissfully unaware of the energy shit-storm that is bearing down on this country. When it kicks in I suspect it will be open season for open-cast coal mining, tracking et al, regardless what protests are mounted.
      This might seem like a philosophy of despair but really it isn’t. I just don’t see how effective action can be undertaken without a clear understanding of the nature of the problem. Much of what I see in the anti-oil lobby is well intended but at times seems woefully naive when it comes to grasping the nature of energy, its availability and its economics. Without that understanding such actions as ArtnotOil are simply preaching to an ill-informed minority.
      Best wishes … Nick

  6. Hey Nick, I just saw your name as one of the 200 plus on the Guardian letter calling for discussion about alternatives to oil sponsorship. Thanks for doing that, despite your concerns. The intention of these performances is to provoke just such a debate, and not to attack.

  7. Pingback: Welcome to the biggest crime that’s ever been committed | The Learning Planet·

  8. Pingback: The biggest crime that has ever been committed – Climate Museum UK·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s