Paintings by BP Travel Award 2013 Winner Sophie Ploeg are Now on Display at the The National Portrait Gallery

Paintings by BP Travel Award 2013 Winner Sophie Ploeg are Now on Display at the The National Portrait Gallery

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.'