The National Portrait Gallery is one of the most interesting museums in London. It is part of the National Gallery and exhibits, as the name suggests, only portraits.
This gallery was founded in the mid-19th century by three patrons, and when it opened in 1856 it was the first portrait gallery in the world. Most of the exhibits were portraits from the personal collections of the founders and gifts from their acquaintances who liked the endeavor. The very first exhibit was the famous portrait of Shakespeare – The Chandos portrait, one of the lifetime portraits of the great playwright.
Here is not only one of the two most likely lifetime portraits of Shakespeare, but also the only lifetime portrait of Jane Austen (an amateur portrait by her sister), the only lifetime portrait of the Brontë sisters-Charlotte (the one who wrote Jane Eyre), Anne and Emily (also an amateur portrait by their brother), and much more.
The exhibition changed several buildings until finally, with another large donation, a new permanent building was erected in 1896, which was attached to the existing National Gallery building. The gallery was managed by a charitable foundation created especially for this purpose, which still exists today and which at different times included many famous politicians, writers and artists.
The main principle of the collection is the importance not of the artist, but of the person portrayed. That’s why there are a number of amateur portraits – not all in a row, but only those that are unique in some way. Before the Second World War, painting was part of the compulsory education of all the wealthy (and especially female education), so there are a lot of old amateur paintings in Britain.
The National Portrait Gallery exhibits portraits of “significant to the country or famous Britons” – only Britons. Hence there are no portraits of other peoples, but British history, culture and art are given as much as possible – all areas of life. The author of the painting could be anyone, but the vast majority of the portraits are lifetime and painted “from life” – that is, from the person posing. There are also photographs, caricatures, sketches and sculptures.
In the collection can be found all English writers, painters, scientists, and composers of the last two hundred years, most English monarchs, almost all famous English navigators and politicians, and many more.
Here is one of the two most likely lifetime portraits of Shakespeare (unless, of course, the person portrayed is Shakespeare, which, given the dust raised about the authorship of his works, is not at all certain), the only lifetime portrait of Jane Austen (amateur, by her sister), the only lifetime portrait of the Brontë sisters – Charlotte (the one who wrote Jane Eyre), Anne and Emily (also amateur, by their brother), and much more. Here you can see the portraits of Charles Dickens and Oliver Cromwell, familiar to us from school textbooks, a photo of Alice Liddell, which once belonged to Lewis Carroll (it was for her that the book “Alice in Wonderland” was written), self-portraits of Hogarth and Reynolds and much more.
A separate part of the exhibition is historical photographs. Same theme, often the same people – in different moments, at different ages, etc.
There are also some temporary exhibitions going on all the time, always related to portraits: photos, paintings, sketches, cartoons, something else, and the exhibitions are always very good. They sometimes have a fee, costing from 10 GBP and up. Prices on the page are for November 2019.
This is an interesting, unusual museum with a huge collection of unique portraits, which is definitely worth going to if you love English history.
Getting to the National Portrait Gallery is easy. You have to walk out to the National Gallery building in Trafalgar Square – you can’t miss it, it’s huge. The Portrait Gallery building is attached to the side, you just have to go around the main one.
The address is London WC2H 0HE, St Martin’s Pl.
There are several tube stations nearby, the closest being Charing Cross and Leicester Square stations.
The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. Admission is free to all.
- Monday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
- Tuesday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
- Wednesday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
- Thursday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
- Friday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
- Saturday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
- Sunday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM