National Portrait Gallery review
The National Portrait Gallery is probably my favourite gallery in London because it appeals to history lovers as well as art lovers. It's all about the sitters, not the painters. Admire the people, not the paintings. But that's not to say that the paintings aren't good, because they are -- they still have pieces by Hockney and Holbein, etc. -- but if they need a picture of a British hero and all they can find is an incomplete prep, then that's what they'll put up.
It's like walking through a Who's Who of British history -- a Panini sticker book of portraits. They've got every royal from Henry to Harry to Hotspur, with Anne Boleyn and Wallis Simpson along the way. If you want to see the face of every monarch we've ever had, then this is the place. A lot of them are very famous pieces -- the big pictures of Elizabeth I are maybe the most famous portraits in London. They cover all of her contemporaries as well: people like William Cecil, Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare and Drake (considering that he was such a tough bloke, Francis Drake is wearing the dandiest outfit I have ever seen!).
They've got actors, writers, scientists, musicians, military generals... everyone from Christine Keeler to Bernard Montgomery, via Michael Faraday and the big beard of WG Grace. You can see Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren and Nelson, mixing it with Paul McCartney and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
You can have a lot of fun just walking around trying to recognise the faces before reading the plaque. I'm all right with the 20th century politicians, but I do struggle with the Stanley Baldwins of this world (the bank managers of Downing Street). You can't mistake the wild hair of the early Liberals and Labour guys, or the oily moustaches of the top hat Tories. Stanley Baldwin could probably spend all day standing in front of his portrait and still no one would recognise him, but imagine if you heard the tap tap tap of Chamberlain's ivory cane on the parquet floor!
Apparently there used to be a rule that you had to be dead for at least ten years before you got a spot on the wall, so the trustees could tell whether you've truly earned a place. But that rule was dumped in the interests of making more money. So whilst upstairs you've got people like Elgar and Handel, downstairs it's Eddi Reader and Blur. Upstairs are Disraeli, Gladstone and William Pitt, and downstairs is Mo Mowlam. Upstairs is Samuel Johnson, and downstairs is Gok Wan (no joke!). They've got a ten minute video of David Beckham too, which is just him lying on a bed trying to fall asleep. Why can't they just sit him down and paint his face? We just don't paint portraits like we used to.
Search out the long shot of Arthur Balfour leaning against a wall. Can you imagine a commission like that these days? Nowadays you're much more likely to get an abstract jumble of colours or something shocking: hence the plethora of unrecognisable skulls and celebrities posing in their underwear. Artists are always looking for an angle these days: some other kind of message that they wish to impart. In the old days (upstairs) the aim of the game was to create a good likeness, and the better the likeness the better the painting. And they'd put them in a pose which told us something about the sitter -- was he a thinker? a romantic? a bit moody? The artist tried to show us something about their character by the way he posed. But if you look at all the present day stuff it seems as if the likeness is often the first thing to get dumped. The artist doesn't tell us anything about the subject at all -- not even what he looks like. It's much more about his own style of painting. I don't think the artist even cares whether his portrait looks like the person concerned anymore -- he'd much rather the viewer walk away talking about them (the artist) rather than the sitter. Maybe that's why there are so many photos in the present day section? Because that's the only way of recording what the subject actually looks like.
But listen to me... jeez. You'd think I didn't like the place by the way I'm talking. But I do! It's their collection of modern art that I don't like. If you stick with the past then it's well worth a visit.
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