The Face of Britain

Marina Vaizey

Magazine issue: 
#4 2012 (37)

The world's largest collection of personalities and faces from the late Middle Ages to the present day, London's National Portrait Gallery is the oldest such institution in the world, founded in 1856 on a strong intellectual base which was a consensual attitude at the time: the 19th-century emphasis on the ways in which individuals influenced, and indeed led the events of history. One of its major supporters was the leading historian Thomas Carlyle, who also was an early trustee.

Carlyle declared in a letter of 1854 that he had found in the practice of history that "... in all my poor Historical investigations it has been, and always is, one of the most primary wants to procure a bodily likeness of the personage inquired after... Often I have found a Portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written 'Biographies', as Biographies are written; or rather, let me say, I have found that the Portrait was a small lighted candle by which the Biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them...".

Britain was for much of the 19th century the most industrialised and powerful country in the world, but its politicians were concerned by the waves of unrest which had convulsed Europe. Cultural manifestations, particularly those concerned with national history and national pride were seen as good in themselves; partly as a reaction to the French revolution and the events of 1848, enlightened patriotism and a sense of inclusion was to be encouraged by cultural means.

There was throughout the 19th century in Europe and North America a wave of new museums and galleries. In Britain, the National Gallery was founded in 1824 (the Louvre had, of course, been nationalised during the French Revolution), and both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery were founded in the 1850s, the decade of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester of 1857. There were also many new regional, civic and municipal galleries, often initiated by private benefaction. In the case of the NPG, the study of the appearance and specific history of prominent individuals could be seen as a wholesome inspiration for the public. (The endorsement of British national identity was not necessarily exclusive: Carlyle did not limit his energies to London, having lobbied for the establishment of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, where he is remembered as a "believer in heroes". The Scottish NPG was officially founded in 1882, moving into its purpose-built building in 1889, seven years before the London NPG moved to its permanent home.)

National portrait galleries are almost by definition the most infinitely human of public collections, literally embodying a nation's history in the appearance of its notables over the centuries. Collecting criteria are more diverse than in most major public museums and galleries: the subject matters as much, indeed more, than the author of the art work, and aesthetic values are not necessarily paramount. Paradoxically this makes the collections even more invigorating: we can admire some of the greatest artists of a national school along with their lesser colleagues, learning almost as much about what makes good art as the lessons offered by understanding the trajectories of individual character in an historical context.

Thus London's NPG combines our natural fascination with people-watching, history almost as gossip, with an appreciation of the development and changes of the British School — almost without exception the artists represented are British, even as they include such illustrious immigrants as the 16th-century German Hans Holbein the Younger, the 17th-century Dutch painters Sir Anthony van Dyck and Sir Peter Lely, and the 18th-century French sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac, to name only a few. Moreover the subjects are not necessarily exclusively British, with illuminating surprises around every corner: for example there is a substantial holding of photographs of Marilyn Monroe, who made the film "The Prince and the Showgirl" with Laurence Olivier in Britain, and was photographed by many British photographers.

The outstanding historian Sir David Cannadine, recently chairman of the trustees of the NPG, simply declares that he regards its development "as an integral part of the history of the British nation".

The beginnings of the NPG were modest and the result of several years of lobbying by one particular grandee: Philip Stanhope sat in the House of Commons as Viscount Mahon, a courtesy title, as a Tory member of parliament, before he rose to the House of Lords as 5th Earl Stanhope. Cultivated and determined, he published a biography of another politician, William Pitt the Younger. Stanhope rallied Prince Albert, Victoria's profoundly cultured consort, to the cause as well as Sir Charles Eastlake, then both the director of the National Gallery and the President of the Royal Academy, and brought his idea of "the expediency of forming a Gallery of the Portraits of the most eminent Persons in British history" formally to the attention of the House of Lords.

He wished to persuade the nation to establish "a gallery of original portraits, such portraits to consist as far as possible of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in art, in literature or in science". A few months later the House of Commons voted £2,000 towards the founding of a "British Historical Portrait Gallery", and the Treasury granted the first subsidy. The NPG like all national museums was entwined with the state from its very beginning, but also benefited from private beneficence. Its first portrait was a gift, from founder trustee Lord Ellesmere (whose picture collection at his home was open to members of the public), who gave the "Chandos" portrait of William Shakespeare, considered then as now perhaps the greatest of all Englishmen. Support came from across the political board: the future Whig prime minister William Gladstone responded to Ellesmere's generosity in 1856, endorsing the NPG's "propriety of making history, and not art, the governing principle for the formation of this gallery"; his Tory arch-rival Benjamin Disraeli articulated his support for the idea as early as 1852, and later became a trustee.

There are currently some 175,000 portraits in the collection, of everybody from princes to prime ministers, churchmen to actors, writers to scientists, generals to sportsmen. Discussions of course take place as to the appropriateness of the person depicted for inclusion in the national collection (British national collections are not allowed to sell or dispose of their holdings, so these are permanent acquisitions), but the very first judgment of achievement seems to have been relatively catholic, as alluded to in the NPG's founding "first rule" on subjects: "nor will they consider great faults and errors, even though admitted on all sides, as sufficient grounds for excluding any portrait which may be valuable". The collections have grown through purchase, gifts and bequests, and recently the NPG has been actively raising funds to produce an endowment to provide a stable basis for acquisitions. It is definitely a "mixed" economy: subsidy from central government combined with an ever-greater emphasis on individual, foundation and corporate financial support.

Visitor figures attest to the growing national fascination with the past and even the modern preoccupation with celebrity — although in the 19th century "celebrity" meant a well-known person of public distinction, today, posing a new challenge, it may mean the subject of a photo story in a gossip magazine like "Hello!". Until the 20th century the holdings of the NPG, except for the monarchs, were almost exclusively all of dead white males — politicians, statesmen, figures from established religion, the armed forces, famous authors — at most a few thousand of them. Trustees were not only remarkably aristocratic themselves but even dynastic, and generally speaking comprised the "great and the good": the President of the Royal Academy of Arts is automatically a trustee.

The 19th century saw the NPG on various peregrinations, residing for a while from its opening in 1856 in a cramped Georgian house in Westminster, migrating for a time to "Albertopolis" in South Kensington, perching rather like a cuckoo in the nest in the museum quarter inspired by Prince Albert after the great success of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Kensington Gardens. Then the NPG went eastwards to inhabit for some years one of the world's first pre-fabricated buildings, in Bethnal Green, to which the old boilers, glass roof and iron pillars from the Victoria and Albert had been moved. The temperature was either freezing or too warm, and getting to the East End for the cultured middle classes was nearly impossible, while the social inspiration to bring art to East London proved insufficient to keep the NPG there. (Nowadays the building is treasured as the Museum of Childhood, an outpost of the Victoria and Albert, close to an underground station, so its story has a happy conclusion).

The roof in Bethnal Green leaked, paintings were damaged, and finally the government gave the NPG its site next to the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square; that proximity led to George Scharf, who had joined at the gallery's inception as secretary to the trustees before rising in 1882 to become the NPG's first director, insisting in the architectural brief on "no communication whatsoever with the National Gallery" (more cheekily, the writer Henry James would later refer to the NPG as "like a bustle attached to the cladding of the National's posterior"). In 1889 the patron W.H.

Alexander offered to pay for the new building, on the condition that architect Ewan Christian provide the designs, in imitation of Florentine Renaissance architecture, with a seasoning for the entrance of the facade of Santo Spirito in Bologna. Distinguished portrait busts by a young sculptor of the time, Frederick Thomas (who after the successful completion of this massive commission retired to the country and was never heard from again) form a series over the facade of the ground floor.

Over the entrance there are sculptures of the main founders of the NPG, the historian Carlyle, the 5th Earl Stanhope, and member of parliament Thomas Macaulay, first Baron Macaulay, author not only of the poem "The Lays of Ancient Rome" and other stirring poems on historic subjects which used to be required reading in school, but of a "History of England" which has not been out of print for more than a century and a half. The busts of artists include Holbein, Roubiliac, Van Dyck, Lely and Kneller (all immigrants), as well as Hogarth, considered the father of English painting, the painters Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy of Arts (which was founded in 1768), Sir Thomas Lawrence, a later President of the Royal Academy, and the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey.

Recent expansions have also been philanthropically funded: Lord Duveen, the flamboyant and wildly successful art-dealer of the early part of the 20th century financed the first which was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1933. The Ondaatje Wing, a combination of National Heritage Lottery Funding and private benefaction led by the businessman Dr. Christopher Ondaatje, opened in 2000.

Visitors have increased almost exponentially over the gallery's history. In the few years after its first incarnation in the 1850s there were about 5,000 annually, then 80,000 in 1877, and perhaps as many as 300,000 when the new building was opened in April 1896. In the 1970s nearly 250,000 came, in just two months, to see the new portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Pietro Annigoni. In 1980 visitor numbers were about 450,000 and in 2012 they are about two million, the highest in the gallery's history.

The trajectory of the collections embraces six centuries of art in Britain. The painted portrait, oil on panel, the miniature, and the drawing, did not enter Britain as a significant genre until the 16th century, and many of the most significant artists then and later were often migrants, either seeking employment and economic betterment or escaping continental turmoil, especially religious persecution. The subjects were, of course, the monarchy (Henry VIII and Elizabeth I made extensive use of the painted image for information and propaganda purposes), and courtiers, aristocrats, court favourites, politicians, and the mighty of the land — in short, the elite. Image was all important even then, and thanks to the collections of the NPG, it is the Holbein the Younger drawing of Henry VIII and the "Darnley" portrait of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, his daughter, that fix their appearance in the national eye.

A good living could be made by those artists who made substantial careers in England. The habit of being painted spread beyond the court: even the poet John Donne was painted, suitably shadowy and melancholic. There are masterpieces on view: the magnificent oil sketch from 1629, touchingly direct, by Sir Peter Paul Rubens of Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, a leading 17th-century collector of art, politician and all-round power broker. His knowing, perhaps even cynical, intelligence is readily apparent.

The artist could be a grandee, too: Sir Peter Lely had enormous success, and his own swaggering self-portrait (c. 1660), when after the Restoration he was appointed principal painter to Charles II is painted evidence of his sharp-eyed, albeit slightly melancholic confidence. There is a 1685 self-portrait by another successful emigre from Germany, Sir Godfrey Kneller; Lely's and Kneller's wonderfully curly coiffures show how men's fashions could easily match the extravagances of their female contemporaries. Kneller's portrait of Sir Christopher Wren (1711), the grand old man of English architecture and designer of St. Paul's Cathedral, is a stiffly sensitive study of a man who has had his day.

Later and remarkable self-portraits include Sir Joshua Reynolds as young man with a very sharp gaze (1747); William Hogarth (1757), hard at work, his velvet cap covering his shaved head; Thomas Gainsborough (1759), modest, even friendly; and the gloomy George Romney in 1784.

The richness of British culture is attested to by such images as Joseph Severn's portrait of the meditative poet John Keats reading (1821-1823) started in the year that Keats died, aged only 26; and the portrait of the architect Sir John Soane, whose own house is now a museum in Lincoln Inn's Fields, by John Jackson. Patrick Branwell Bronte's portrait of his three sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne, has a fourth image — presumably that of the painter himself — removed from the family group; it was found, badly creased, in a family home almost a century after it was painted, and hangs in that unrestored condition today.

The range of images of people over the six centuries is invariably fascinating: here is the poet William Wordsworth (1842), by Benjamin Haydon, a painter and a friend; the iconic photograph by Robert Howlett of the greatest of industrial engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, casually posed in front of the huge chains of his "Great Eastern" , the biggest of the Victorian steamships (1857); the poet laureate Lord Tennyson photographed in 1865 by his friend, the outstanding photographer, a passionate amateur, Julia Margaret Cameron; the hugely influential designer — and socialist — William Morris painted by G.F. Watts in 1870; the prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, a trustee of the NPG, painted by Sir John Everett Millais in 1881 (caricature was also admitted, often in the form of images from publications like "Vanity Fair", as in the case of Disraeli).

From the next century, the wistful beauty of the young Virginia Woolf is caught in the Charles Beresford photograph of 1902. The people who formed English politics and culture, and its role in the world, are depicted with elements of current artistic trends — like Ben Nicolson's abstract portrait of himself and Barbara Hepworth, or Patrick Heron's image of T.S. Eliot, with hints of cubism.

The 21st century has brought new complications for the NPG, with the notion of achievement widening, and the aphorism of Andy Warhol almost literally enters the picture — that everybody is famous for 15 minutes; subjects of gossip magazines and television are all too often "famous for being famous", a self-fulfilling prophecy (Warhol's silk-screens of Queen Elizabeth II are in the NPG collection, too). The 19th-century notion of eminence has been supplanted by tabloid fame, so the task of the 21st century is to find subjects of true worth and achievement as opposed to superficial glitter. However reading the annual reports and the histories, even in the 19th century there were representations of the "famous" who are unknown today, and the current mix is an utterly fascinating spectrum of society across a very broad swathe.

In the years after World War II the NPG has had a variety of directors who have been instrumental in expanding the collections and widening the remit to respond to changing demands. Sir Roy Strong joined as assistant keeper in 1959 (he remembers it being referred to in those days as "that awful morgue!"), and was director from 1967 until 1974. Crucially it was under Strong's tenure that the "ten-year rule" was rescinded, relaxing the founding statutes that had prohibited consideration of subjects until ten years after their deaths. He pioneered a lively approach, spotlighting photography as a major component (with the creation of the film and photography department in 1972), and creating a series of must-see exhibitions, including photographs by Cecil Beaton, and the world of that quintessential Londoner, Samuel Pepys, as well as rehanging parts of the gallery away from the crowded Victorian style, towards a more spacious, contextual manner. Strong's own assessment of his time at the NPG is characteristic: "To have begun to erode this equation of Portrait Gallery with instant gloom and a foot weary depression of spirits, both aesthetic and intellectual, may, one hopes, be counted as something of an achievement."

In the 1990s Charles Saumarez Smith oversaw a major expansion of the building. The current director, Sandy Nairne, previously at the Tate, has strengthened international connections, bringing in major exhibitions by contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter, David Hockney and Lucian Freud, as well as showcasing imagery in its political, social and economic contexts. Nairne wants the "people's museum" to combine learning with enjoyment, making the collections and special exhibitions engaging and fascinating, in particular with a mix of popular and specialist exhibitions. Future plans include a focus on the major photographer David Bailey, the Great War in portraits, Virgina Woolf (herself the great-niece of Julia Margaret Cameron) in 2014, and John Singer Sargent's portraits for 2015. Another future international collaboration, planned with the Tretyakov Gallery, on Russian portraiture, will also be supplemented with research, and scholarly catalogues in print and digital forms.

Today, the collections embrace the visual arts in all media: paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, photography, film and video. We may think of the portrait as a relatively conventional subject, but the NPG has pioneered the use of unusual materials and methodologies. This helps make the collections over all not only spectacularly enjoyable but even provocative and at times controversial.

Sam Taylor Wood filmed the footballer David Beckham not in action but sleeping, with just his naked upper torso visible, a sportsman absolutely at rest, and the viewer almost a voyeur. Her film — a digital video on a plasma screen — lasts an hour, and certainly is a subtly witty reinterpretation of art history — think all those reclining naked women which inhabit so many paintings of the western tradition, from the Venus of Velazquez to Manet's Olympia. The avant-garde artist Mark Quinn portrayed the leading geneticist Sir John Edward Sulston in terms of a sample of his DNA in agar jelly mounted in stainless steel, an NPG commission in 2001 (Quinn's more conventional photograph portrait of Sulston hangs nearby). Quinn's self-portrait is made from his own blood, and kept from dissolving by being permanently exhibited in a refrigerated case.

The Olympic champion swimmer Duncan Goodhew is represented five times: four photographs, and a nine-part video by Marty St James and Anne Wilson (1990) which shows fragments of the athlete's body and a swimming pool in a 20 minute impressionistic evocation of the rigours of training. Even new media needs careful attention and conservation; the original video tapes from 1990 had deteriorated and have been recently conserved and restored. Other new media highlights include Michael Craig-Martin's portrait of the renowned Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid, a wall-mounted LCD screen with integrated software, from 2008. (Technical innovations are not only recent: in the 16th century William Scrots painted an anamorphic portrait of Edward VI, distorted in such a way that it can only be viewed "properly" through a special side lens).

Following on from the 1969 decision to include living subjects, the gallery has further widened the democratic aspect of its acquisitions: the first prize in the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition which has an open submission (only a small proportion of the thousands of works submitted to an expert panel are chosen for the show) is an NPG commission. Equally interesting is the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize: in 2012 over 2,000 photographers worldwide — although most were from Europe or resident in Britain — submitted over 5,000 images for a final exhibition of 60 photographs. Again, one of the prizes is a commission from the NPG.

The NPG has found all sorts of ingenious ways with these competitions and commissions to continually refresh the gallery with carefully chosen contemporary work, responding to the technical expansions in digital media while simultaneously still including depictions in the conventional methods of paint on canvas, drawings and prints.

Historical material is just as important: this winter's scholarly exhibition was a stellar show of the "Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry, Prince of Wales, 15941612", the cultured, energetic and brilliant king who never was, with works of art on view by Holbein the Younger, Rubens, and the miniaturists Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard, amplified by books and manuscripts, armour and artefacts.

It is the habit of the gallery to have as many as 20 special "mini-displays" focusing on particular subjects spread around all three floors of the chronological exhibition. Thus we can look at a small show concentrating on works on paper depicting leading contemporary writers; another display marking the centenary of the death of the unusual British black composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; group portraits by the German photographer Thomas Struth (who has recently photographed the Queen); and photographs taken, including some by that passionate photographer Benjamin Stone MP, a politician who left a legacy of over 30,000 photographs, on the occasion of the first Olympics to be held in London — in 1908, over a century ago.

There is a major publication programme, specialist exhibition catalogues and an expanding series of small books on everything from the Pre-Raphaelite painters and their circle, to the Romantic Poets, with images amplified by text. Perhaps in this digital age the most important aspect of the gallery now, particularly for those who cannot visit central London, is its website. Here there are images and biographies, and the catalogue will eventually put all significant holdings on line. With a click of the button we can research these varied notables, the hundreds and thousands of those from Kings to Olympic swimmers, movie actresses to feminists, poets to explorers, who have made the United Kingdom the country that it is.





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