Undoubtedly among this blogger’s top three things to see and do in London (if you’re at all interested, the other two are Hyde Park/ Kensington Gardens and the South Bank’s book fayre under Waterloo Bridge), the National Portrait Gallery is a too often overlooked, extraordinarily comprehensive and compelling venue that, should you allow it, takes you on a trip through 500 centuries-plus of English and British history via, yes, the art form that’s portraiture.
Located just behind Trafalgar Square’s National Gallery (which may be why it’s a tad overlooked) and with its entrance on St. Martin’s Place, it’s home to around 200,000 works – everything from paintings to ‘modern’ photographs, sketches to cartoons and statues to busts. Truly, to step into this attraction is to step back into the UK’s past of regal, radiant, brilliant and incredible VIPs – and be bombarded by them all. Here are some of the highlights…
Truth be told, if you’re interested in any era that predates the 16th Century then this place may not be ideal for you because it pays lip service to the medieval age (portraiture wasn’t exactly a big thing way back then), but if you’re an enthusiast of Tudor history then this’ll almost certainly be your scene. With the Tudor dynasty effectively kicking-off the gallery’s chronological tour through the movers and shakers of late English/ British history, it hits its groove early with a focus on the ever compelling, if ruthless reign of the legendary King Henry VIII. Best of this iconic monarch is the giant ‘retconned’ family sketch by the almost-as-iconic court painter Hans Holbein – the man whom pretty much invented Tudor propaganda via portraiture.
That phenomenon is further, terrifically demonstrated by the efforts that feature the illustrious and seemingly fearless Queen Elizabeth I. Her paintings are brimming with important symbology – a pelican representing her ‘motherly love’ (of England), a phoenix for ‘rebirth’ and an ermine for ‘purity’. Meanwhile, look out here too for a portrait of the unmistakable playwright and poet for the ages, William Shakespeare.
Following this, saunter through the enthralling rooms dedicated to the Stuarts and Georgians (the eras of civil war, enlightenment and empire building) and you eventually reach the Victorians – one of the truly captivating eras of British history. The thing with the Victorians is that, while they seem rather distant and stoic, they also feel eerily modern, progressive and relatable. Perhaps the biggest draw here is the sunning statue of a young Queen Victoria herself with the love of her life, her handsome consort Prince Albert, in medieval, almost Arthurian costume. Yet, cast your eye about and you’ll also spot luminaries like Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, as well as – stepping into the early 20th Century and the Edwardian age – the leaders of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel; the latter of whom is presented as a French ‘Liberty’-like heroine-cum-goddess in the movement’s recognisable white, green and purple shades.
It’s not just paintings at the National Portrait Gallery, though; if you’ve a keen interest in politics and its history, you’ll be well served as well (not least if you’ve chosen to stay centrally in the city at, say, accommodation in Piccadilly or one of the hotels near Shaftesbury Avenue). For this venue’s a hotbed too of satirical sketches, dating way back, as they do, to the 18th Century; very much the forerunner to today’s media ribbing that politicians have to endure (and many enjoy). To wit, there are many of the scathing cartoons of William Hogarth, as well as George Cruikshank’s sketches of an über-obese King George IV and fine takes on the legendary Parliamentary foes of the Victorian era, Gladstone and Disraeli.
For the regally eagle-eyed
Finally, this is definitely the attraction to come to should the Windsors hold any fascination for you. On its walls dedicated to the 20th Century are a number of works that, thanks to their more modernist styles, offer something of an intriguing, unusual slant on the globally iconic figures of British royalty. You might not catch sight of the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, but here you can stand right in front of them, eyeball-to-eyeball!
As you can with the tragically departed Diana, Princess of Wales, thanks to an unmissable full-length portrait of her that was commissioned by the venue just weeks before her marriage back in 1981 – and in which she sports the engagement ring that her would-be daughter-in-law Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge now noticeably wears. In fact, this very painting was slashed by a knife-wielding attacker just months after it was first hung, yet it’s highly unlikely you’ll spot any damage, owing to the expert work of conservationists. Good luck finding any!