Adam Birtwistle - New Now London Thursday, December 9, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'There are two sides to all of us, the organised and the dysfunctional and Birtwistle’s genius is that he sees them both.' —Godfrey Barker

    With prominent works included in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery and Glyndebourne Opera House, internationally acclaimed British artist Adam Birtwistle is well-known as one of the leading portraitists of his generation. Marking this well-established artist’s auction debut, Cow Chop (Sir Harrison Birtwistle) is a strikingly dramatic work featuring one of the artist’s favourite subjects - his father, the esteemed contemporary classical music composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Wry and playful, with a confident sense of line and executed in a carefully controlled palette, Birtwistle’s portraits are highly idiosyncratic, and have captured a range of eminent contemporary and historical cultural figures including actors, saints, artists. Most significantly amongst these sits his celebrated Composers series, to which the present work belongs. 


    Disarmingly candid, Birtwistle’s portraits of art world luminaries including Peter Blake, David Hockney, and the late critic David Sylvester, seem to cut straight to the emotional core of their subjects with remarkable facility. Highly compelling, one of these Hockney portraits now belongs to the Berger Collection and was toured across the United States as part of their 2017 exhibition, Treasures of British Art 1500-2000. As in the portraits of his father, Birtwistle’s personal connection to Hockney clearly animates these works with a uniquely personal dimension, and it is perhaps unsurprising that it is to these two subjects that Birtwistle returns most frequently. 


    Adam Birtwistle, David Hockney, RA, 2002, The Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum, Image Courtesy of PIANO NOBILE Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd., Artwork: © Adam Birtwistle

    Throughout his Composer series, Birtwistle approaches his subjects with a characteristic balance of wit and perspicacity, drawing out subtle details that humanise the familiar figures of great historical composers Beethoven, Mozart, and Verdi, as well as more contemporary figures. Set against the dark, sparse backgrounds used to great effect in the portraiture of the Dutch Golden Age and directly referenced by Birtwistle in the title of his 2013 exhibition with Piano Nobile, Grand Manner Portraits, the artist creates a sense of dramatic tension and focus within his carefully controlled compositions. Often introducing strange, almost surreal elements into his paintings - evident in the present work with the prominent inclusion of the chop - Birtwistle’s works generate a strange but highly compelling atmosphere. 


    Employing the dominant accents of red and white used to such powerful effect in his other portraits, Cow Chop (Sir Harrison Birtwistle) also introduces cooler blue tones in the subject’s tousled white hair and short-sleeved shirt, complimenting his relaxed and open pose and the touching detail of his gaping upper button. A highly regarded and well-known cultural figure whose opera The Minotaur is considered one of the most significant musical compositions of the 21st century, Sir Harrison Birtwistle is here presented with an unexpected straightforwardness that is typical of his son’s careful but understated attention to the human condition. 


    A student and professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, it is fitting that another of Birtwistle’s portraits of his father is now held in their permanent collection. In addition to a gouache that now resides at the National Portrait Gallery alongside the artist’s engaging portrait of British musician Elvis Costello, Birtwistle was also commissioned to paint a portrait of his father alongside five other prominent historical composers whose operas were performed as part of the 2001 Glyndebourne Festival. 

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

    • Literature

      Gavin Plumley, 'Composer Portraits,' The Times, 19 March 2016, online (illustrated)


Cow Chop (Sir Harrison Birtwistle)

signed and titled '"Cow Chop" Adam Birtwistle' lower right
tempera and gouache on paper, in artist's frame
101.8 x 92.2 cm (40 1/8 x 36 1/4 in.)
Executed in 2012.

Full Cataloguing

£6,000 - 8,000 

Contact Specialist

Simon Tovey
Specialist, Head of New Now Sale
+44 20 7318 4084

New Now

London Auction 9 December 2021