National Portrait Gallery review
If you're coming to London for a week then you have to find time for at least one art gallery. You can't just do fun stuff for seven days, that's not allowed. Art gallery first, then fun. Do your homework first, then you can watch some telly later.
This is the art gallery that I always recommend if you aren't particularly into art, because it's half-art and half-history. It's full of British kings and queens, politicians, scientists, writers... it's like walking through an illustrated edition of Who's Who. It probably won't be as interesting if you're from abroad because you won't recognise half the names and faces on display (but lets be honest, neither will most of the dopey Brits!) -- but assuming you had a half-decent history teacher at school let's see if you can do better than me.
It starts off with the Tudor kings and queens and pictures of Henry VIII. My favourite one in here is of Elizabeth I when she was still a young queen. We always imagine her as an old crow with a face caked in school-board chalk but here she is in her beautiful youth, surrounded by famous names from her day like Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and Shakespeare. They certainly liked wearing frilly ruffs in those days -- what was that all about? It looks like a clown outfit to me, but I suppose they'll be saying the same about our clothes in a hundred years.
Then you move onto the Stuarts with James I (Gunpowder Plot), Charles I (English Civil War) and Charles II (Great Fire of London). It's amazing how many famous names we had in those days: you go from Isaac Newton to Christoper Wren via Samuel Pepys and Cromwell. They've ditched the frilly ruffs by this time and started wearing curly wigs like the king. Back in those days they all seemed to model themselves on the monarch so if the king turned up wearing a wig then you'd think oh bloody hell, now I've got to wear a silly wig as well. Imagine if we still did that today... we'd all be walking around in pearls and pastel hats.
A lot of the interest comes from seeing portraits of people you've read about in history books and always wondered what they looked like. You can put faces to all those street names and plaques in public squares. You can see the people that were famed for their good looks. Why did Henry VIII go so nuts over Anne Boleyn? Was Anne of Cleves really such a turn-off? (Personally I don't think she was!) Maybe that old story about Holbein improving her looks was true.
Once you've passed Winston Churchill you may as well go home because that's British history over and done with. Fame makes way for celebrity at this point and half of the artists forget how to paint -- you need to keep it realistic for a portrait otherwise there's no point in doing it, but it's all abstract and impressionistic stuff. Even their own mothers wouldn't recognise them.
Events at National Portrait Gallery…
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