For the most part UK small press anthologies of the mid 00’s were horrible things. Invariably photocopied, often on the very cheapest of paper stock. Any artist being invited to contribute would trawl his or her sketchbook for the very worst most half-baked idea that they were never going to use themselves and send it off.
Things have changed. These days when I’m invited to do an anthology I immediately spiral into a self-doubting funk, wondering if I’ll be able to compete with these younger fitter artists with their amazing haircuts and comprehensive knowledge of Photoshop. Today we have a cornucopia of titles to choose from. Things like Tiny Pencil, Bimba, The Strumpet, Solipsistic Pop, Ink + Paper and The Comix Reader to name but a few.
In between then and now there are a dozen anthologies that raised the game of the UK small press antho to its current giddy heights. The one I’ve chosen here sits, both chronologically and in terms of quality, in the very mid point between these distantly placed poles of very good and very bad.
The BP Portrait Prize Anthology is described on the inside cover as being ‘Art, Comics and writing based loosely around the theme of portraiture.” It goes onto explain; “There is no prize, the title is a weak parody of the BP Portrait prize held in The National Portrait Gallery”
As promised the innards of the book presents us with a mish mash of stories, comics and illustration. Editor Steve Tillotson opts for illustrated short story pieces, dealing with fictional (one presumes) visits to A – List celebrity’s houses. Rod Stewart is one example, the story relates how, Rod Stewarts mum and dad being at home, Steve and Rod have to play computer games in his bedroom, after which his mum makes them unappetizing lasagna.
One surprising aspect of The BP portrait anthology, and one that stands testament to Tillotson’s good taste, is how many of these creators are still around, making much better work than they made at the time. Examples include Dan Locke, whose story of an aging thug ‘These Fists Fly’ contains some convincing dialogue, but whose artwork, while by no means bad, displays little of his current brilliance.
Oliver East, Paul O’Connell and Gary Bainbridge also contribute pieces worthy of note at the time, but which now merely act as footnotes to their current glory. Jess Bradley produces one of my favorite pieces in the antho, a ‘Memorial to Those Who Were Lost’ plays tribute to dogs that have died in various unusual ways.
Another strip deserving of special attention is Andrew Waugh’s ‘A portrait of the Artist in the Prime of his life’ in which the artist watches ‘Popworld’ and complains about the ubiquitousness of McFly.
But it’s not just about the comics. Experimental writer Holly Pester treats us to a word portrait of a bat, Jonas Ranson offers us some baroque monstrosities and Chris Roantree makes a very curious piece where the Hindu Elephant God Ganesh is transformed into a portrait of a granny, complete with teapot and quality street.
There are also a couple of musicians involved, most notably Dean Haakenson of Be Brave Bold Robot.
All in all, the BP Portrait Anthology, while fully capable of making ‘Em Squirm, is an interesting testament to a group of creators on the cusp of speedy development and a medium restlessly casting about for new ideas. The following year saw the release of the much better BP Landscape Anthology, which was a full colour affair and included an early piece by Steven Collins.
I almost forgot to dwell on my own squirm worthy piece recounting some warts and all anecdotes of my school experiences and eccentric teachers.
To my mind my best contribution must be my incredible bio I wrote on the back; ‘Gareth Brookes is an artist, writer, poet, economist, pop svengali, political philosopher, necromancer, womanizer and drug addict.” Wow! Those really were the days!
Amazingly there are still some Banal Pig Portrait anthos available here and anyone who can name the painting parodied on the front cover can have a free one!