Thursday, 20 March 2014

The National Portrait Gallery

Wednesday 19 March 2014

We thought we should start with a fairly straightforward museum, just to see how it went, and so headed to St Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE and the National Portrait Gallery.

Linda did some research, which I share with you here:
As befits its founding fathers  (Macauley, Stanhope and Carlyle) the NPG feels somewhat like walking into a history textbook, or occasionally like turning over your school set texts and recognising ‘that' portrait of Byron or the Brontes.  Founded in 1856 to immortalise the’ great and the good - who were to have been 10 years dead - it arrived at its present building  (tucked behind the National Gallery) after some years of wandering about ( South Kensington and Bethnal Green amongst other ‘temporary homes) opening in 1896, its architects not living to see the day. The building replaced St Martin’s Workhouse.

I arrived by bike while Linda came by  63, then 176 over the river, walking the last bit as the bus bogged down in the Strand and we started our exploration at 10.30.

The Gallery is, as we all know, hung chronologically, and we headed to the top floor to what I feel we should call 'Wolf Hall' territory.  As Linda says, most of these portraits are well known, but I very much. admired Walter Ralegh's pearl encrusted cloak.  He had, after all, adventured around the Americas where pearls came from.  I doubt if he would have spread this cloak over a puddle for the Queen to walk on.

By the way, the pictures are from the NPG's excellent website
We also enjoyed Lady Dacre, looking very motherly with her son Gregory Fiennes.

Heading on downstairs, we came to the appeal to save the Van Dyck self portrait.  I feel it would be interesting to know who owns it and wants to sell it abroad.  Then we moved smoothly  on to a lot of politicians, and a splendid room of heroic chaps: Kitchener with Khartoum behind him; Baden Powell; Antarctic Scott and so on.  According to the captioning, Kitchener designed (or knitted) a better way of making socks for squaddies, known as the Kitchener Stitch.

When we got into the scientists and engineers area, a forest of large Victorian beards, by the way, we were pleased to see Huxley and Darwin alongside the creationist Richard Owen: together on the wall if not in science.  We noted that Brunel and Stephenson were conveniently placed next to Bradshaw, the railway timetable man.  We also liked Perkin, inventor of the first ever aniline dye, which was so popular that it was said that police officers took to telling people to 'mauve along there'.

Moving on ourselves, we reached the 20th century, with many delights, including a spiky aluminium bust of Edith Sitwell, and lots of politicians and others.  One surprise was a glamour portrait of Anna Neagle, who we tend to associate with serious roles of the 'National Treasure' sort.

The ten years dead rule has long been relaxed, so that we could enjoy portraits of the young royals and their contemporaries.

Although we had agreed not to look at special exhibitions, we did have a quick nip round the First World War portraits, and shall go back for a proper look outside the parameters of the project.

What can we say?  a splendid collection of faces, and well worth a visit: conveniently open late on Thursdays and Fridays, if you happen to arrive early for your theatre or cinema nearby.

PS The shop is accessible from the street and has a large postcard collection (though none that either of us wanted this time) some London books and guides, and a few ear-rings not very obviously based on anything from the comparatively few female portraits.  

The toilets are glazed in grey brick tiles with a trendy trough sink and 2 Dysons. We didn’t try the restaurant but know it has a fabulous view whereas the downstairs café is a bit cramped.  


  1. I followed your tour-de-force of travelling on every London bus route with much interest over several years from here in Devon, and thought when it came to an end that was it - no more sharing of your experiences. But no! - now a new challenge which will prove really interesting for those not in the metropolis, and hopefully flag up places to visit on the occasional visit. Thanks for all the entertainment over the years, and enjoy your museum visits!

  2. I love the fact that you're including the "amenities" in your reports ... they are not often mentioned in reviews but are often the most interesting (or problematic|) aspect of visiting a place