Ninety-three-year-old Donald Zec is the winner of the inaugural Oldie British Artists Award (OBA), launched earlier this year by The Oldie magazine and Ecclesiastical, the specialist heritage and fine art insurer. The winner will be presented the award at a ceremony on Tuesday 16 October at the English Speaking Union in London, following an exhibition of the eleven shortlisted works at St Mary-le-Bow Church in London from 8 to 12 October.
Donald Zec’s portrait of his grandfather was selected from over 300 figurative paintings submitted by artists from around the country, from the Shetland Islands to the Isle of Wight. Maggi Hambling, chair of the judging panel, said of the rabbinical portrait: “This is the one for me. I really engage with him, alive and full of feeling”. Of his portfolio: “His work has feeling and originality. I don’t mind that it is slightly primitive. It is real rather than some arty technique.“ As the winner of the OBA, Donald receives a cash prize of £5,000 and an opportunity to exhibit at London’s prestigious Abbott and Holder Gallery.
The Award was launched in March 2012 to celebrate the work of artists aged 60 and over, living in the UK. The organisers’ intention was to celebrate figurative art, which they feel has been neglected lately in a rush for modernism and the need to shock, and to recognise the talent of older artists in this country. This year also marks major anniversaries for the founders of the Award, The Oldie’s 20th and Ecclesiastical’s 125th.
Donald Zec OBE is, as it happens, the oldest entrant for this Award. His winning entry is a charcoal drawing of his paternal grandfather who was among the huge exodus of refugees fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Poland more than a century ago. He settled in London and his son, Donald’s father Simon Zecanovsky, became a tailor who also wrote short stories in Yiddish. Few refugees ever talked about their experiences and often only the odd sepia snapshot offers a clue to their resilience. Donald says: “It was this combination of resignation and yet dignity I tried to capture in this charcoal sketch of the ‘pious patriarch’ who died before I was born. I wanted to leave my Kent-born granddaughter a hint of her high cheek-boned ancestry.”
A former journalist, Donald is an author whose work includes biographies of The Queen Mother, Sophia Loren and, most recently, his late brother, Philip Zec, the celebrated political cartoonist of the Second World War. Donald took up painting less than five years ago while grieving over the death of his wife Frances after a 66-year-long marriage. The outcome was cathartic. “The grief remained”, says Donald, “but the gloom receded while I pinned on the L-plates, discovered the fast-track delights of acrylics and the tactile thrill of splashing paint on canvas – only ruining two shirts and a pair of favourite corduroys in the process.”
Donald’s journalistic career began in 1938, when he had a three-day trial on the Daily Mirror and ended up working there for 40 years. He spent six years during the war with the London Irish Rifles and then went back to the Mirror, first as a crime reporter and then as Royal correspondent. Later he was appointed the paper’s film writer which meant that he interviewed all the great stars of the day including Brigitte Bardot, David Niven and the Beatles. In one week in Hollywood, he would see Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart.
The Award’s judging panel was chaired by painter and sculptor Maggi Hambling CBE and comprised Richard Ingrams, Editor of The Oldie, Huon Mallalieu, Arts Correspondent of Country Life, Philip Athill of Abbott and Holder Gallery, and Clare Pardy, Fine Art Underwriting Manager at Ecclesiastical.
Richard Ingrams, Editor of The Oldie, commented on this year’s submissions: “The standard of the entries was amazing and the Award received an excellent response with 325 entries in its first year. And not a drop of formaldehyde in sight.”
Clare Pardy, Fine Art Underwriting Manager at Ecclesiastical, added: “Our thinking behind the Award was to shine a light on not only people who have painted all their lives but also those who have discovered painting in their later years. Gratifyingly, the competition has stimulated some very impressive examples from all sorts of artists which is thrilling.”