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The National Portrait Gallery opened in 1856 and moved to its present site near the National Gallery forty years later. All of the images are of Britons past and present – a history of England in pictures.
It is a rather peculiar gallery, in that the works are judged more by historical importance than artistic merit. The works are all about the status of the sitter, rather than the person painting the image. So its chief role is putting a face to the names that you read about in your history books.
The galleries are arranged in chronological order, starting with a masterpiece. A huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth I strides across a map of Britain – storm clouds raging where the Spanish Armada sank into the sea.
A surfeit of monarchs follows, with studies of Henry VII, Henry VIII and James I.
The Henry VII piece is the oldest in the gallery – painted by an unknown artist in 1505.
The most important piece is probably the one of Henry VIII – painted by Hans Holbein in 1536.
Another intriguing piece is the Duke of Monmouth’s portrait. He was the illegitimate son of Charles II who rose up against his uncle – James II. When he was subsequently beheaded he was found to lack a picture, so an artist was quickly summoned while his head was still ‘fresh’, and knocked one out in 24-hours.
If you’re after famous authors, then check out the Brontë Sisters. It was painted by their brother Branwell in 1834. After years of trying to make the grade in print, he died of drink, drugs and depression – you can even see where he painted himself out of the portrait.
There is also a controversial portrait of William Shakespeare – the Chandos portrait. This was the first piece to enter the collection – donated by Lord Ellesmere in 1856. Some people suggest that it isn’t him at all.
Other works include the only known likeness of Jane Austin (by her sister, Cassandra), and Samuel Pepys, William Wordsworth and George Bernard Shaw.
The photographic collection includes views of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Lord Tennyson.
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