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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

National Portrait Gallery, London: A Brief History

What is the National Portrait Gallery?

The National Portrait Gallery is the first portrait gallery in the world to be opened, featuring iconic figures from British history

historic photo of national portrait gallery

National Portrait Gallery History

When the National Portrait Gallery first opened its doors to the public in 1856, it was the first gallery of its kind in the world. The original collection contained just 42 paintings, of which the first to be acquired was the Chandos Portrait, dating from the first decade of the 17th century and thought to be a rare depiction of the playwright William Shakespeare. For the first eleven years of its existence the gallery was located in the London home of its secretary, George Scharf, where he co-habited cosily with the portrait collection, his mother and his aunt.

For the next 30 years, the gallery was housed in various locations across the city until, in the late 19th century, this Renaissance-style building was constructed adjacent to the National Gallery. Unrivalled by any other British collection, it features artists ranging from Hans Holbein to David Hockney. Their portraits document the iconic men and women who have helped shape Britain from the 16th century until the present day; the gallery provides a unique portrait of the nation itself, understood as a mosaic of its most influential individuals. As well as displaying its permanent collection, every year the National Portrait Gallery hosts the ‘Portrait Award’, representing the best in contemporary portraiture from around the world.

Along with the traditional painted portrait you may expect from the gallery’s title, you will also discover photographs, caricatures, drawing and sculpture, as well as medals, coins, death masks, wax busts, pottery figures, papier-mâché and even bodily fluids. Look out for Mark Quinn’s Self, a cast of the artist’s own head, made with ten pints of his frozen blood. The work is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, and a new version of the sculpture is re-made every five years, due to the degradation of the medium. Across this variety of media, you will come face to face with the likes of the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale, and King Henry VIII – the famous and the infamous that make up Britain’s dramatic history.

And one of the paintings has a dramatic history of its own. In July of 1914 John Everett Millais’ portrait of Thomas Carlyle, one of the gallery’s founders, was attacked by the Suffragette Anne Hunt, who marched into the gallery wielding a meat cleaver. Hunt’s sensational stunt was one of a spate of similar attacks, which aimed to draw attention to the Suffragette cause of gaining votes for women. Earlier that year, in the National Gallery just next door, Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus suffered assault by cleaver in exactly the same way.

Look out for the only surviving group portrait of the Brontë sisters, painted by their brother Patrick in the mid-1830s. It’s a rare chance to see three of 19th-century Britain’s most iconic writers, usually so well hidden behind their words. Don’t miss the smallest painting in the collection, a portrait of Princess Henrietta, the youngest daughter of King Charles I. It is barely larger than a thumbnail. You certainly won’t be able to miss meeting Her Majesty Elizabeth II, who features in over 300 works in the permanent collection.

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