On the same day I visited the Supreme Court, I decided to pop into the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve been there a few times in the past, but it’s been a while since I’ve gone through it thoroughly.
The NPG was founded in 1856 and was the first portrait gallery in the world. It moved to its current site in 1896. As the name suggests, it contains portraits of the great and the good from the late medieval period onwards – the pictures have been chosen for the significance of the sitter, not the artist. It’s interesting to see how this changes over time: in the sixteenth century it’s mainly monarchs, with the odd courtier; later on the litany includes scientists, artists and poets, and the modern day portraits include celebrities: singers, actors and sports people.
The Gallery is arranged chronologically from the top to the bottom, so I headed to the top floor via the escalator. The first things you see are casts from the tombs of medieval kings, this from a time before portraits were common. From then it’s straight into the Tudor era, starting with a few Tudor-era portraits of medieval kings. I still remember the first time I saw this part of the Gallery: I was fresh from studying the Tudors at A Level, and it was amazing to see the paintings I’d only ever seen in textbooks in the flesh. Queen Elizabeth has a strong presence but there are also famous pictures of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Paintings dating from the Jacobean period onwards cover monarchs as well as famous scientists, writers and artists, including the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare and one of my favourites – a dramatic painting of poet John Donne. I naturally gravitate towards the writers – I love the picture of Lord Byron towards the end of these galleries.
Works from the Victorian era can be found on the floor below; these are very, well, Victorian. There is a room for politicians and a corridor for famous public faces, plus many representations of Queen Victoria herself. My favourite room here is the writers’ room, which contains Branwell Brontë’s painting of his three famous sisters, as well as a picture of another of my favourite authors, Thomas Hardy. Another of my favourites is the dashing portrait of a young Lord Tennyson.
The early twentieth-century gallery has recently been refurbished, and it was good to see it looking refreshed. In general this isn’t my favourite artistic period, but there are some interesting portraits here of the likes of Virginia Woolf, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Winston Churchill.
The Gallery hosts regular special exhibitions (for which a charge is made) and offers late-night opening on Thursdays and Fridays. It’s smaller and a bit less daunting than the nearby National Gallery, but it’s well worth a visit.
Address: St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE
Opening Hours: Daily 10am-6pm, open until 9pm Thurs & Fri
Price: Free (charge for special exhibitions)