I’ve walked past The National portrait Gallery many times, but I’ve never been interested in exploring what’s inside. Why? Well, how can a bunch of framed faces be interesting?
How wrong I was.
While most of the older portraits dating back over 500 years are just paintings (you know the type I mean, those from the Elizabethan times), it was the 20th century exhibit which really changed my mind. Some took the simple idea of a portrait and added a contemporary twist such as Andy Warhol’s work of Elizebeth Taylor and Mick Jagger.
And while I may dismiss the older artwork as ‘just paintings’, you can’t help but admire the talent of their creators and the realistic faces staring back at you.
Walking through British history
But what surprised me most about The Gallery is it more than just framed faces – it’s a walk through history.
As the largest collection of portraits in the world, you’re taken on a journey through British history and culture – and those who helped shaped it.
A large part of its success in guiding visitor’s through this fascinating journey are the accompanying descriptions. More than just who the person is and who was the creator, these little paragraph-lengthed nuggets of information next to each sums up exactly who you’re looking at, giving you insight into who exactly the person is.
Just one example that sticks in my mind is the actor Ira Aldridge. He was the first black actor to really make it in the UK. While he never really found fame in his home country of the US, he found success on the British stage portraying Othello which then led to tours around Europe and becoming one of the highest paid actors in the world. I had never heard Aldridge previously, showing what an education a visit to the Gallery is.
And this continues through room upon room upon room of portraits (The Gallery has four floors in total). You’ll also find new temporary displays such as the up-and-coming exhibition from world renowned British photographer David Bailey. Bailey’s Stardust promises over 250 images that have been personally selected by Bailey which showcase his various work throughout his sensational career, capturing everyone from actors and filmmakers to musicians and models.
Currently on show in a small room is a dedication to the actress Vivian Leigh. Again, I knew nothing about the person in the frames but the descriptions helped me overcome this. Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration coincides with the 75th anniversary celebration of Gone With The Wind. The various photographs and shots from films guide you through her successful career with other films like A Street Car Named Desire in which she won an Oscar for her role as Blanche Duboius. It’s on displayed until the 20th July so there’s plenty of time to visit this – and I suggest you do.
Practical information about The Gallery
There’s also a gift shop which most interestingly sells copies of the portraits. The basement features a bookshop and cafe while the top floor boasts the Portrait Restaurant which has huge glass windows with views across the city. They serve afternoon tea which I’ll definitely have to try!
Entry to The National Portrait Gallery is free, except the larger and showpiece displays such as Bailey’s Stardust which take place on the ground floor. There are maps which have a suggested £1 donation and I recommend buying one as it’s quite easy to wander aimlessly around the many rooms! There are also audio visual guides available in various languages (£3), a Gallery App from iTunes (£1.99) and visitors guide which highlights the key portraits complete with high quality images and stories.
And if you can’t make it to The Gallery, over 107,000 are available online to view while The Gallery loans out work in collaboration with venues across the country, so an exhibit might be closer than you think.
What is your favourite portrait in the National Portrait Gallery? Tell me in the comments section below!