One of the museums I’ve always missed and regretted missing on my many trips through London is the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve taken courses focusing on portraiture conventions and so was looking to see some of both famous British persons and the work of famous British portrait painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. And perhaps interpreting some of the conventions in person; it’s very striking to see work in person that you’ve only seen as a projected slide, there’s usually a great difference of size and the NPG was no exception.
The lower floor was dedicated to current figures and had a wide variety of types of portraits including a charcoal drawing of JK Rowling and the four members of Blur in a comic fashion as pastel line drawings, which was way larger than the cd covers for Blur’s Greatest Hits it has been endlessly reproduced on.
On the second floor were many portraits I recognized, including a very poignant sculpture of Victoria and Albert (of course Victoria is responsible for establishing the original form of the NPG, the “British Historical Portrait Gallery” in 1856) and the original Bramwell Bronte painting of his sisters Charlotte, Anne, and Emily that he painted himself out of. I visited Howarth and the Bronte family home back in 2005, fully thinking that the version of the painting they had on display was real, but once I looked closely at the NPG’s it was very apparent that the creases in the canvas from when Bramwell folded it up and stuck it away were the real, cracked creases of canvas. The room had another portrait of Emily that also was the real version of one on display at the Bronte’s home in Howarth, I’m very glad I actually got to see the real ones, I do not recall any little plaques explaining that the ones on display at the home were actually in the NPG, but sometimes exhibits are misleading.
The NPG also has a large collection of Tudor portraits, including several Holbeins (Hans Holbein is the painter responsible for the main image that the public have seen of Henry VIII, the monumental hands on hips portrait). One of the rooms had portraits of Anne of Cleves and Anne Boleyn as well as very young portraits of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as a princess. Elizabeth I’s main courtiers, or at least the ones extensively covered by the film Elizabeth and therefore the ones I remember best, were also well represented, including Walsingham and Robert Dudley, it was quite funny to see sometimes the difference between the way films like Elizabeth are costumed and the way the Lords really wore their facial hair.
The NPG really is the sort of collection that it’s impossible to see all at once, with rooms devoted to explorers, scientists, authors, and other British luminaries, and it’s never all on display, for instance Paul was available in Beatle portrait form, but John was not. The NPG also has revolving exhibits such as the current one of photographs from Fleet Street papers throughout the years and the current winners of the British Portraiture Award for 2007.