Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published March 18th 2015
Picture Yourself Amongst Kings and Queens
National Portrait Gallery
Capturing the likeness of someone on canvas is no easy feat, but at the National Portrait Gallery you can discover the faces of hundreds of people across history. Housing the largest collection of portraiture in the world, the gallery is constantly changing its displays, which means the saying 'been there, seen that, bought the t-shirt,' does not apply at all.
If there is a specific portrait that you are looking for that you cannot find, you can also use their Digital Space to search their online catalogue.
As well as their free displays, the National Portrait Gallery also holds ticket exhibitions. Up until the 25th May, they are currently featuring John Singer Sargent for £16.
Abstract Portraits by Jack Smith
The first artworks I cam across were rather unexpected to me, as they bore no resemblance to a person or animal at all. Jack Smith (1928 - 2011) was an abstract artist, who created two portraits of the composers, Colin Matthews and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. He also painted choreographer Ashley Page, and a self portrait of himself. As much as I like his brightly coloured, cheerful paintings, I simply cannot accept them as portraits. Call me too lateral thinking, but I find it pretentious. He could have said the paintings were inspired by or emotionally representative of these people, but not portraits.
On the wall adjacent, I was pleased to see portraits much more in keeping with the definition. These featured works from the 1960s-1980s, and focussed on personalities from politics and the monarchy, such as Princess Diana.
Prince Albert & Queen Victoria
Through to the next hallway were portraits from the nineteenth and twentieth century, starting with loving sculpture of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria gazing into one another's eyes.
As you can see, the National Portrait Gallery is not just about paintings. They also embrace wider mediums like statues, photographs, and even medals. Once such example is by the French artist, Alphonse Legros (1837-1911).
One of the temporary displays that I found interesting was about the suffragettes, and included a portrait of the Suffrage Movement's leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, who along with her daughter, fought tooth and nail for votes for women, through protests, hunger strikes, and many other horrendous ordeals.
Sir William Walton by Michael Ayrton
A portrait that I particularly liked was of Sir William Walton (1902-1983) by Michael Ayrton. I was impressed how the artist merged his subject into the background, to make him look as if he were part of the rock face.
My favourite, however, was of Beatrix Potter, because I have always imagined her when in her youth, rather than in later life.
To increase the educational experience of your visit, the gallery provides tours, audio guides, and free daily talks. On my visit, the Portrait of the Day was of Roald Dahl, so I was quite interested in listening to it. Not longer after the talk began, however, I realised I was going to be disappointed. I was expecting to listen to half-hour talk about the painting - the artist, techniques, why he painted Dahl the way he did - but not one word was uttered about the portrait. As enthusiastic and engaging as the lady was, all she talked about was Roald Dahl himself. Having read both his autobiographies, I learnt absolutely nothing new.
For me, the second floor was the most interesting because it feature portraits from the Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian periods. As well as the paintings everyone is familiar with, such as those of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein, there were even more that I had never seen before. I particularly liked the earliest known portrait of Charles II just because of how out of proportion it seemed - a little four month old baby sitting up with a dog on its lap. Surely the dog would have been too big for that? There was an intriguing side note next to the painting quoting his mother, that at four months 'he was so fat and tall that he is taken for a year old.'
After you have finished wandering the galleries, you can take your pick of two cafes, one on the third floor, and the other in the basement.
There is, of course, also a gift shop. Aside from the usual nik-naks such as mugs, bags, CDs, etc, there are also plenty of things for artists.
They have watercolour pencils, charcoal, drawing pads, and posable figures. Downstairs is a bookshop full of books on art, history, and illustrative stories.