TAITMAIL The NPG and who we are

When the re-thought Scottish National Portrait Gallery was opened in 2011 after a £17.6m recasting and with three times the gallery space its director, James Holloway, said he wanted the place to be a national collection of portraits no longer, but to be a national portrait of Scotland.

“What we can now do with the space we have been starved of is show not just a narrative of a portrait of Scotland, but a series of narratives which we will change, some over years and some over months, historical and contemporary”. Visitor numbers went up from under a million to 1.7m, and after the pandemic slump had climbed back to 1.2m last year. The reinvented story it has to tell is an enduring one.
 
London’s National Portrait Gallery has also got the message, and it reopens after a £41.3m two year makeover with the same kind of revision having taken place, but in this case more fundamental - the difference between 2011 and 2023 being the perception of the disgraceful treatment of women and ethnic minorities in the narratives, not to mention young people and the disabled.
 
The muscular way in which the NPG has gone about putting wrongs right, especially for women, is admirable but also painfully accentuated, and it has had a long way to travel from its founding manifesto. Now it is to “tell the story of the United Kingdom through portraits, from the Tudors to today”.
 
It started life in 1856 with 57 items in a borrowed room in Westminster, the centrepiece being the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (still labelled as being the only portrait the man sat for, despite vigorous academic disagreement that it is him at all) given by Lord Egerton who had recently bought it from the Duke of Chandos. The problem then was that the only subjects were the rich, famous, powerful and royal, giving a very one dimensional story of a nation.
 
The portrait gallery was the first in the world, the brainchild of the historians Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington Macaulay, and the MP Earl Stanhope who wanted to see a public monument to the greatness of the newly delineated British Empire through the depictions of those who had helped create it. D’Israeli was also a founding trustee.
 
It moved to South Kensington in 1869, to the Bethnal Green Museum in 1885 and finally to a purpose-built home on land beside the National Gallery given by the government and opened in 1896, by which time the collection had grown to 208 pictures and visitor numbers has risen from 5,300 a year to 34,500. In 2021 there were I.54m and ambitions for this truncated year are for 1.5m.
 
The NPG now boasts 250,000 portraits of which there are 1,100 on display, a third more than when it closed in 2021. 
 
Photography was in its infancy when the NPG first opened and it has only been taken seriously in the last half century since Colin Ford started the collection. There are now 250,000 original images, and the way some are shown here gives the lie to photography being an inferior art. There is a Julia Margaret Cameron photographic portrait of Carlyle in one room with in the next a painted portrait of him in exactly the same pose by G F Watts. The former shows an intelligent character, a thrusting, determined but genial profile; the latter is a pouting, limp, dishevelled lout.
 
For the first time a few of the 80,000 prints, some of the most difficult images to conserve, have gone on show in a changing display, and there’s a section devoted to the self-portraits of female artists – 48% of the pictures on show now are of women, up from 35%, but the Black and ethnic minorities make up only 11% (though coming from a base of 3%).
 
But most of the £41.4m has gone on the physical change of the building, and most of that is in the public areas – bigger shop, brighter cafés, a brand new education centre, and the most immediately obvious is the new entrance, just round the corner in Ross Place, giving a broader aspect to what was a poky introduction to the place. They’ve created four new doorways for it by opening out windows, and Tracey Emin has left an inedible mark by sculpting portraits of women in bronze for each of the door panels.
 
Office spaces have been taken over to create more gallery space, and while the familiar Tudors and 18th century admirals are all still there, and royals old and current (the Princess of Wales is the patron who formally opened the refurb this week) abound so that one wonders how long it will be before this is the Royal National Portrait Gallery, there are interesting innovations. There is one computer-generated toy, for instance, which allows you to reshape the faces of portrait subjects by putting your own facial expressions on the famous subject.
 
The founding mission of the NPG did not require art quality to be a criterion, so though the gallery doesn’t have a deaccessioning policy there must be several hundred if not thousands that wouldn’t bear contemporary scrutiny. In the last 50 years or so commissioning has been far more discerning. So a new introductory feature gallery, History Makers, greets visitors at street level with portraits of various media of contemporary influencers, from the 20-year-old environmentalist Bella Lack to the poet Kae Tempest to the fashion editor Anna Wintour (without sunglasses) to Michael Eavis (a new commission by Peter Blake) to Tom Shakespeare.
 
There is one connection with ordinary life in particular which is long overdue. It is a small display box of objects under the title of Everyday Portraits which includes a group of small porcelain figurines that have adorned mantlepieces across the land for a century or more, a denim jacket festooned with enamel badges, a photograph of an Asian man working at a sewing machine, a V for Vendetta mask representing Guy Fawkes adopted as a symbol by the Anonymous online anti-establishment movement of a decade ago. 
 
These are the images that help make a portrait of who we have become, not just the portrayals of who we would like to be recognised as. The NPG is undoubtedly more enjoyable because of its new spaces, commissions and brasher hang, and this is a tribute to the mood among museum directors to be closer to their audiences. But Andy Murray is going to mean a lot more to them as a representative of our national persona than Admiral Lord Kepple.

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