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 Tudor and Stuart Galleries
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.
Authors at the National Portrait Gallery
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.
Guest – “Did anyone out there enter the bp portrait award competition? . My picture came back like a boomerang - but when I saw the high quality of all the other pictures awaiting collection in my regional collection point, I found the very high standard of the rejected works encouraging rather than depressing. Together they would have made a wonderful exhibition. Looking at the winning picture this year, and the catalogue in general, I am at a loss to identify what the judges are looking for. Any ideas? The odds of being accepted by the npg are tremendous anyway, 2177 entries this year and only 55 selected - but I doubt if the competition is in fact an unbiased competition open to everyone over 18. Mr. Anonymous from nowhereville gets to enter just one work for a fee of £30, and probably has very little chance against established artists whose output is probably already well known to the judges, and whose paintings”
ian meyer – “I entered the summer exhibition at the royal academy once, and felt the same thing. When I went to pick up my painting I saw everything else I realised how "normal" my painting was. They are looking for things that stand out when they hang them on the wall. If your painting is technically good, but otherwise pretty normal, then forget it. They will not give it a second look. What you need to paint is something that is different to everything else. The technique isn't the most important thing. You need to have an obvious style that is unique to you. I like to think of it as being the same as the x-factor. If all you are is a Decent singer, then you've got no chance. But if you chuck in a weird haircut and a geeky attitude that makes you stand out, then your odds go up remarkably.”
pamHMRC – “I think I much prefer the national portrait gallery to the tate gallery. Probably because the meanings behind the paintings are easier to ascertain. My history isn't that great, but I can recognise some kings and queens and famous celebrities. But I am hard pressed to recognise what any painting in the tate gallry is supposed to be about, all I can do is admire their beauty. So the p[ictures in the portrait gallery have an extra little something that draws you in.”