Of all the galleries that I've been to, I reckon the National Portrait Gallery is my favourite. And that's because I actually know a bit about the paintings because I recognise who they are. When I go into a 'proper' gallery it's all that arty-farty stuff with Bible scenes and landscapes, and things that nobody knows anything about, unless they stop and read the name tags. But when you go into the Portrait Gallery you can stand in front of a picture and actually tell who it is because they've got British kings, queens and politicians going all the way back to the dinosaurs.
The Tudor section upstairs is the best bit. You've got everyone from Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, to Francis Drake and Shakespeare. Then you go onto the Stuarts with Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren. I struggle a bit when it comes to the Victorians, but you can still recognise people like Albert, Wellington and Charles Dickens.
Then you come onto the first half of the 20th-century with your Churchills, Chamberlains and Atlees, but after that it starts to go downhill. The last of the decades to feature 'proper' paitnings is the fifties, and then you're lumbered with a load of photos, modern art and more abstract stuff. They've got a painting of Paul McCartney, for example, which looks like it's been left out in the rain for a week, so it's all streaky and stretched. I think they did that just to cover up the fact that it doesn't really look like him. Most of the other stuff is like that too. The portraits don't look like the people they're supposed to be.
Apparently there used to be a rule that you had to be dead for at least 10 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 is 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 them down and paint their face, like normal?
There always has to be an angle these days, some kind of other thing that's going on at the same time. In the old days, upstairs, the aim of the game was to get a good likeness. The better the likeness, the better the painting. And you'd stick them in a pose which told you something about the sitter -- a thinker? romantic? a bit moody? The artist tried to show you something about their character by the way they posed. But if you look at all the 20th century stuff it seems that the likeness is often the first thing to get dumped. The artist doesn't tell you anything about the subject at all, not even what he looks like -- it's all about his own style of painting. Maybe that's why there's so many photos in the 20th-century section -- because that's the only way of recording what the subject actually looks like.
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