UK: MASTERCLASS - THE ART OF A RECRUITMENT EXPERT. - Alec Reed (right), chairman of Reed Executive, takes a tour round the National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Award exhibition with the Guardian art critic, Adrian Searle.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Alec Reed (right), chairman of Reed Executive, takes a tour round the National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Award exhibition with the Guardian art critic, Adrian Searle.

Alec Reed stalks into the gallery and heads straight for a young man who has insects crawling over his shaved head. It is an alarming encounter - the chairman of Reed Executive in a face-to-face with The Entomophiliac (portrait of J R concealing a blue bottle under his tongue) one of the few striking images in the National Portrait Gallery's annual BP Portrait Award show.

A praying mantis makes its way across the young man's scalp, and Reed is fascinated. You can imagine the boss of Britain's leading temp agency hiring the man, insects and all. 'Most of our staff have hidden talents,' Reed says, 'if only they can be bothered to find out what they are.'

Reed likes his art, it turns out. He buys the odd picture and also does pastel portraits. Like many aspiring artists, he's reached a basic standard of competence but doesn't quite know how to progress further. He is quick to admit this, showing a diffidence that is perhaps unexpected for a man in his position.

In his business life, Reed publicly champions innovation, imagination and ingenuity. Perhaps one day the same drive could enliven both his appreciation of art and his own practice as an amateur portraitist. As yet, however, the development of his judgment is in its early stages. His own collection is still in its infancy. For a man who as founder and chairman of a company with a turnover of the order of £150 million, it seems strange that he has never spent more than £1,000-£2,000 on a work. Not for him the wilder shores of modern art, then. Why is it, I wonder, that Britain has so few serious collectors and supporters of contemporary art, while in Europe and the US successful businessmen are assiduous fans and enthusiastic collectors of the avant-garde?

The BP Portrait Award show isn't exactly the cutting edge either. Part of the problem with late 20th century portraiture, Reed thinks, is that it has been replaced by photography. Suddenly wary, Reed admits that his own portraits are based on snapshots. Is this OK, he asks, as if he might be accused of cheating? Vermeer used a camera obscura in the 17th century, while everyone from Degas to Sickert, from Hockney to Warhol have used photos as source material for their paintings. Reed looks relieved. I tell him it's what you do with the material that counts; the thing is, not to be timid. Prince Charles's watercolours fail because he won't let what's left of his hair down.

We continue, with Reed waving his long arms about, suddenly lost among the lurid, maudlin babies, the tattooed nudes and serious young men with their paint-spattered mirrors, the nocturnal existentialists and the dedicated realists who miss neither a hair nor a trouser crease. We linger over a hyper-realist painting of a Japanese fish market, where everything from the faces of the workers, the knobs on a crab, and the sheen of a pile of squid to the telephone on the wall has been rendered in super-accurate detail. Reed feels that the painting, for all its skill, is really a bit too illustrative. 'It would take too long, and I haven't the patience,' he admits.

We then move on to the galleries upstairs, newly redesigned by architect Piers Gough. This is getting more like it, with the see-through glass walls on which the paintings float, and the undulating ceiling curving overhead. The pictures, though, don't necessarily merit the post-modern treatment. Reed doesn't approve of this either, though he's clearly fascinated by the hanging system, and the way the light flows through the room.

We pass on from a mad-eyed self-portrait of Mervyn Peake and a paint-clogged picture of H G Wells to Patrick Heron's wonky post-cubist portrait of T S Eliot - a high point of British post-war art. It is an impatient, energetic, playful painting which I thought Reed might like - a model of ingenious, imaginative innovation but unfortunately I can see that it isn't exactly setting his soul on fire.

He's drawn instead to a staid portrait of pre-war comedian Will Hay, wearing a mortarboard. Reed likes this, but more for its subject than its leaden execution. And at this point he lets slip that he's a bit of a performer too, doing conjuring tricks at parties for the grandchildren. He may not aspire to sawing the lady in half, but it would be a small step. If his interest in art begins to wane, we will probably soon find him cutting up cows, sheep and sharks. It may not be portraiture, but it could be a hell of a lot more fun.

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