London’s National Portrait Gallery is just next door to the larger National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, so visitors sometimes overlook it. But history buffs, gawkers, artists, bookworms, students and tourists won't want to miss it. And admission is free.
Founded in 1856, the gallery collects and displays portraits of Britain’s most famous men and women. Its first painting was a donation of a now-famous but then-controversial portrait of William Shakespeare. Now, it’s part of a permanent collection numbering more than 185,000 works representing subjects ranging from pop stars to prime ministers. About 1,400 items are on view at any one time, covering five centuries of personalities.
The collection includes work across all media, from painting and sculpture to photography and video. Before 1969, a likeness of any person was not accepted until 10 years following his or her death.
According to its website, "The National Portrait Gallery was established with the criteria that the Gallery was to be about history, not about art, and about the status of the sitter, rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art." That’s one reason for its more talked-about acquisitions, one of which is its latest major work of the British royal family.
The latest portrait to join the collection is of Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. The gallery added it in January 2013, one year after she became a patron of the National Portrait Gallery. Immediately following the portrait's unveiling, there was widespread criticism that the painting did not do justice to its sitter. The duchess and her husband, Prince William, helped select the artist, Paul Emsley, who was on hand as the couple praised the work at the unveiling.
Emsley has explained that since Kate Middleton was at the beginning of her public career, she preferred a relaxed, personal portrait rather than an official one. This portrait will most likely be just the first of many. According to the BBC, Queen Elizabeth II has already sat for 129 portraits.
Visit in person
Artist Emsley has heard complaints about his Duchess of Cambridge portrait. But he says that if everyone could see it in person, they would agree with the royals’ assessment. "I believe half the problem is the portrait doesn't photograph well and I would encourage people to go and see it," he said. Many people will do just that.
The Duchess of Cambridge portrait is on display now as part of the Contemporary Collections in the Lerner Galleries in Room 36 on the ground floor.
The British royal family has always been a popular subject for portraits. A pretty 1958 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a sunny yellow dress and seated with one of her corgis is a favorite. A casual family portrait done in 2000 includes William and Harry with their father, grandmother and grandfather, great-grandmother and plenty of corgis. There is a young Diana pictures in a seated pose, wearing trousers.
The galleries are easy to walk through; portraits are arranged by period in the various rooms:
Tudor and Elizabethan (1485-1603) rooms 1-3
Stuart and Civil War (1603-1714) rooms 4-8
Georgian (King George I, II, III) rooms 9-14
Regency (King George IV-1837) rooms 17-20
Victorian and Edwardian (1837-1910) rooms 21-29
20th Century (WWI-1989) rooms 30-33
Contemporary (1990-2009) rooms 35+
The philosophy behind the gallery’s selections is still in effect today. Among the portraits recently commissioned are those of former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, former London mayor Ken Livingstone, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Vivienne Westwood and Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet.
The National Portrait Gallery is open every day of the year except December 24-26. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with late nights until 9 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. The museum has a café, a restaurant, and a bar on the third floor, with exceptional views over London.
by Laurie Jo Miller Farr
Photos: The National Portrait Gallery includes many famous faces from British history. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Although some critics panned the new portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, she said she was happy with it. (Painting by Paul Emsley/courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery)
Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, meet artist Paul Emsley after viewing his new portrait of the Duchess at the National Portrait Gallery. (Photo by John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images)