one nation in portraits

National Portrait Gallery in London

Established in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery is one of the world’s most popular collections of ‘who’s who’ as visited by more than 2 million people a year. It owes its existence to the dogged determination of Earl Philip Henry Stanhope, who had his request for a national collection voted down in parliament three times before he finally succeeded. As such it was also the first dedicated and national portrait gallery in the world.

Stanhope saw the importance of creating a permanent collection of portraits that recorded people of cultural significance and political importance in Great Britain all the way back to the Tudors. Since then the gallery has developed into a much more inclusive institution and now has a vast amount of portraits of people from all walks of life, including portraits of unknown sitters. In that respect, the unique art collection not only offers important time stamps of significant moments in British history, but is also a remarkable window into everyday life.

The collections at NPG

The primary NPG collection consists of 11,000 portraits, 4,000 of which are paintings, sculptures and miniatures, and 7,000 light-sensitive works on paper. The reference collection is even larger and contains 80,000+ portraits. The greater part of these is prints, but there is also a smaller body of work classed as drawings, paintings and sculptures. Finally, the Photography collection holds approximately 220,000 original photographic images.

To the public at least, the Gallery is in effect a series of connecting rooms that are neatly and logically curated. In the Tudor gallery, for instance, you step into the world of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, and William Shakespeare. Then there is the 17th and 18th Century Galleries which exhibit – you’ve guessed it – British portraiture from the two centuries. The victorian gallery also offers what it says on the tin. However, the names of other parts of the permanent collection are perhaps less decipherable unless you are well-versed in art history or know the name of the originator of a said sub-collection. E.g. Room 17 the Weldon Galleries, covers portraits from the regency period. Equally, the Balcony Gallery displays familiar faces from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Bang up to date

But it is not all history. The National Portrait Gallery is so much here and now and tomorrow as can be. As so many other of the world’s finest art venues, the Gallery mounts blockbuster temporary exhibitions. Every year the National Portrait Gallery hosts one of the most prestigious art competitions for contemporary art. It is the BP Portrait Award, and the resultant exhibition alone accounts for over a quarter of a million visitors a year.

NPG is also the proud owner of shock art portrait of YBA artist Marc Quinn that was created with frozen blood of the artist. In addition, the gallery is not only dealing in portraits unless you consider pictures of flowers portraits of sorts. Many visitors make a b-line for one of the most important post-impressionist works ever painted: the Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh.

It is well worth checking out the event calendar of the National Portrait Gallery. The art space is well connected with many of the finest museums in the world and loans and lends works of art be it contemporary art or not. It makes it possible for the Portrait Gallery to arrange a temporary exhibition of the greatest Caravaggio paintings right at your doorstep and to offer one of those rare moments when you can actually see many of the painter’s work in one place at the same time.

If you are nowhere near London, you might like the fact that the National Portrait Gallery has three regional outposts at Beningbrough Hall, Bodelwyddan Castle and Montacute House respectively.