Thursday, 29 October 2015

National Portrait Gallery - Highlights


Have you been to the National Portrait Gallery in London?  There's a great view from their restaurant at the top of the building.

It was built in 1865 and has been extended twice with the ambition to display pictures of great men and women and be a focus for study and for understanding portraiture. It was the first gallery worldwide dedicated to portraits, which were a subject that this country particularly specialised in. It wasn't until 1969 that living figures were allowed.

Lord Ellesmore, one of the original Trustees donated the first picture to the gallery which was of William Shakespeare painted by John Taylor in the early 1600s although there are a lot of disputes over the portrait.

Hans Holbein was noted for his accurate portraits. On view is a cartoon of Henry VIII for a larger work for Whitehall, which has subsequently been destroyed,  which shows the Tudor Dynasty in a classical setting emphasising Henry VIII's prowess as a Renaissance prince, however his pose would have been considered vulgar throughout Europe.

Gerlach Flicke was considered a direct heir to Holbein's portraiture. His painting of Thomas Cranmer in 1545-6 shows him with very detailed items reflecting his life and work.

Hans Emworth's painting of Mary Neville, Lady Dacre and Gregory Fiennes, 10th Baron Dacre 1559 is rather unusual showing a mother and her second son. It was made to commemorate the struggle of regaining of their land and title following her husband's death as a punishment for killing a gamekeeper.

A favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Henry Lee painted in 1568 by Anthonis Mor is shown with her emblems on his shirt and a ring. After he lost her favour by living with his mistress and then making up again, he had the Ditchley portrait made by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger which is full of symbolism and a sonnet comparing her to the sun. Her feet rest on Oxfordshire where he had his home in Ditchley.

Anthony van Dyck painted Venetia, Lady Digby in 1633-34 for her husband following her mysterious death perhaps by poisoning at a young age following a rather notorious life. She is shown as Temperance in a random setting with a dress of beautiful fabric. Van Dyck was a pupil of Rubens and his influence would last for a hundred years. He used to work with Assistants who completed the straightforward parts of the portrait whilst he finished off the important bits.

Jonathan Richardson's portrait of Richard Boyle the 3rd Earl of Burlington who brought the Palladian style to Britain, reflects the fact that he was an Architect, Patron of the Arts, an intellectual but in an informal, relaxed way whereas Sir Godfrey Kneller's depiction of Sir Christopher Wren is a portrait in the grand manner as a commemoration of his design of St Paul's Cathedral.

The portrait of David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough in 1770 captures a moment in time with good textures and an alive look.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was the first President of the Academy, elevated portraits by putting the subject in an historical setting and Sir William Beechey followed this. His painting of Sara Siddons in 1793 refers to antiquity as well as her acting roles.

The great court painter of the 1820s was Sir Thomas Lawrence, although his popularity waned after his death. His unfinished paintings of Sir William Wilberforce and Duke of Wellington show his skill and method of painting.

Queen Victoria's favourite, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer painted Sir Walter Scott in a more sketchy way whereas the Secret of England Greatness in 1863 by Thomas Jones Barker is an historical symbolic portrait of Queen Victoria, where she represents an Imperial Britain.

Jerry Barrett's The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari 1857 uses light to highlight Florence Nightingale and to show what she and her good works stood for.

A few more modern portraits to look out for:

Sir John Everett Millais - Benjamin Disraeli 1881

Dora Carrington - Lytton Strachey 1916
Duncan Grant - Vanessa Bell 1918
Georgina Agnes Brackenbury - Emmeline Pankhurst 1927
Walter Sickert - Winston Churchill 1927
Patrick Heron - T.S. Eliot 1949
Gerald Scarce - Denis Healey 1976
Maggi Gambling - Self Portrait 1977-8

Julian Opie - Portraits of the Band Blur 2000
Marc Quinn - Self 2006 - a blood filled head, the 8 pints of blood have to be replaced every few years

Notes taken from a lecture attended during the week.

So much to see and look out for on the next visit!



  1. I never thought about them not including portraits of living people. That must have excluded an awful lot of portraits mustn't it! xx

    1. It makes you think that all the portraits were of older people doesn't it but of course they aren't. x

  2. I've been there once, ten years ago (for the Nelson exhibition!) and thought it was wonderful. I particularly noticed the way they had grouped portraits together - clever. Oh, and we celebrated four special birthdays in the restaurant with its fabulous views over Trafalgar Square. It's a lovely place to visit. x

    1. You're an old hand then! It's a bit hidden round the corner from the National Gallery but full of personalities. x

  3. I love this place, and your piece on it. I am so interested in history that walking through these rooms is like a time machine. The portraits hold many secrets. You can look at them a long time. Love the top of the building too.

  4. This is one of our favourite places to visit in London. So much info in this post. Sounds like the talk/lecture you went to was brilliant

    1. I've really enjoyed my lectures, shame they've finished now.