Things to Look Out for in the National Portrait Gallery
The decisive list of the top National Portrait Gallery paintings you need to visit the next time you’re in the National Portrait Gallery.
The National Portrait Gallery is the world’s pre-eminent resource for the documentation of persona from the 16th century to the present day, comprising the British portrait gallery segment of the wider national art gallery. Of course, with so many Kings, Queens, and celebrities, it’s easy to get lost. Besides, the National Portrait Gallery collection is so expansive that a singular trip can be exhausting; and a proper view of the entire portrait gallery takes a good few visits. Aside from the star attractions such as the famous life-sized draft for the portrait of Henry VIII (legs splayed in full glory), Elizabeth I, and the misshapen portrait of a deformed Kate Middleton that sullenly hangs with its beady eyes forever staring into the abscesses of crushed hopes between her viewers in the middle distance, there are a handful of paintings that are truly worth investigating.
The Chevalier d’Eon ,by Thomas Stewart, 1792
In the first room of the 18th century section lies the unusual portrait of a somewhat haggard-looking bloke in a dress. The bloke is Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, otherwise known as the Chevalier D’Eon. By far the most atypical piece the National Portrait Gallery London houses, there is a rich history that explains his prominent location in the 18th century floor. He is one of the most famous transvestites in history who spied for both the English and the French, and had a reputation for being a master swordsman. According to one historic source he also got off with George Washington at a dinner party. What a life.
King Edward VI, by Guillim Scrots, 1546
This is easily one of the most unusual and recognisable portraits in the London National Portrait Gallery. King Edward’s head has been impossibly stretched across the panel to create a dizzying, almost abstract medallion floating before an idyllic landscape of a kingdom behind. Such Tromp L’Eoils (tricks of the eye) were highly popular during the Renaissance after the exciting discovery of linear perspective, especially stretched anamorphoses such as this one. A famous comparative example of this style is ‘The Ambassadors” housed around the corner at the National Gallery.
Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, by Henry Jamyn Brooks, 1888
Not an example of portrait art in the conventional sense, this piece falls somewhere between genre painting (the naturalistic capturing of society), and portraiture. Instead of one or two sitters, every viewer’s face has been meticulously documented, and the great master works have been painstakingly re-captured in miniature in the background. All the viewers would have been eminent members of high society, not unlike the private view of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition today. This is worth seeing to compare how much (or how little, depending on the exhibition) the Royal Academy has changed over the last 100 years, which can be found just down the road.
Anna Neagle, by McClelland Barclay, 1940s
This portrait of actress Anna Neagle is a perfect example of the inherent idealisation of portraits prior to the mid-to-late 20th century, as well as the impact of photography on painting. The style is distinctly that of 1940s pin up girls, as seen in the gesture and expression of Neagle, the vibrant colour scheme of blue, cream, and orange, and the softened facial features of Neagle. Her contrasting photographic portraits that are also on display in the National Portrait Museum are much more humanising, albeit still idealised representations of the actress. This channelling of the 1940s pin-up zeitgeist is one of the most recognisable items of proof to the contemporary eye that all artists are dependent on their era for their chosen portraiture style.
Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje, by Daphne Todd,1995
This portrait of philanthropist Sir Ondaantje is extraordinary due to its composition, style, and era. A contemporary portrait, the stretched out length of the canvas is highly unusual, even for the style of Todd, but works incredibly well with the height of the sitter. The use of the door and bookcase allows great depth in the background, making the sitter appear closer in the foreground. This understanding of form and composition is rare within contemporary art, making the simultaneously geometric and expressive style even more significant.
T.E. Lawrence, by Flight Lieutenant Smetham, 10th Dec 1928
It wouldn’t be a visit to the National Portrait Gallery without seeing a portrait of Lawrence of Arabia. This particular bromide print paints a complex picture of the man behind the myth. Rather than dressing in the Arabian attire he was so known for, in this picture he is dressed in what appears to be a stylish military boiler suit. The gripping of his wrist and intent gaze into the distance betrays a man consisting of many deep concerns, almost vulnerable for a moment despite his muscular frame. His pose has a slight serpentine twist in it, giving the photograph a sculptural feel that almost looks like a product of fashion photography to the modern viewer.
Visit the National Portrait Gallery at St. Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE
National Portrait Gallery hours: open daily from 10am-6pm. The same hours apply to the National Portrait Gallery shop (where you can buy unique National Portrait Gallery prints).
For information on the transient National Portrait Gallery exhibitions, please see the National Portrait Gallery website for information.