Portrait Artist of the Year, review: Barry Humphries was the very model of wit in this vibrant finale

Barry Humphries was in the hot seat for this high-class finale - Matt Frost
Barry Humphries was in the hot seat for this high-class finale - Matt Frost

It’s hard to think of a better sitter for Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year final than Barry Humphries. The artist formerly known as Dame Edna, or Sir Les Patterson, or Sandy Stone, depending on your vintage, came on wearing a fuschia jacket with bright orange trousers before announcing, “As the light slowly dims in my life I am wearing more colour.”

If that wasn’t enough to throw our three finalists, Mark Oliver, Christos Tsimaris and Calum Stevenson, then Humphries quickly lobbed them another grenade – they did know, didn’t they, that he’d sat for a couple of other minor artists, such as David Hockney. And that he once bumped into Francis Bacon buying vitamins in Boots. And that he’s no mug with a paintbrush himself. So no pressure on our three probationers, then.

On the plus side Humphries’s eyes – mischievous, knowing – were a gift for the artists trying to pin him down. Four hours later, with the music getting steadily faster and the brushwork more frenetic, all three had produced something rather wonderful. They all used iPads, cameras, laptops, grids and rulers, yet the basic function of a painting – to inspire emotion – was amply met.

Put on your spoiler goggles now if you’re saving the result for afters but the winner, Calum Stevenson, seems to have been honing his vision with every round this year. His Humphries was a brilliant amalgam of tenderness and stern technique.

It helped, when it came to the second episode of the evening, that Stevenson was also a hugely personable, imperturbable, and committed artist, even at 23. (Added bonus – he also happens to be a dead ringer for Normal People’s Paul Mescal). And his prize – a £10,000 commission to paint the violinist Nicola Benedetti for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – was even more daunting than four hours staring at Barry Humphries.

It is a truth universally acknowledged in talent shows – and POATY is really just the most sophisticated talent show of them all – that part of the fun is watching people stuff it up. And so when the time came for presenter Stephen Mangan to reveal Stevenson’s Benedetti there was tension in the air. As it was (at least to these eyes) the painting was a triumph, again merging old with new, darkness with light, in a way that no one had predicted or imagined.

Barry Humphries wasn’t called upon for his opinion at this point, but I reckon he would have approved.