The National Portrait Gallery is a perpetual bridesmaid – the other national gallery in the shadow of The National Gallery, tucked away behind it on St Martin’s Place while the National Gallery gets top billing on Trafalgar Square. If galleries had feelings, I imagine it would be pretty brassed off.
The remit of the National Portrait Gallery isn’t to display the best art. It’s to display the history of the nation in portraits. So while a great picture of some anonymous fisherman might not make the cut, a really bad portrait of Nelson or Keats might – if that was the only picture we had. Fortunately, most illustrious people managed to get painted by quite good painters. And of course some great painters provided us with self-portraits too.
Here are my top 10 highlights:
Let’s start at the beginning, with the earliest painting in the collection – a superbly characterised portrait of Henry VII dating from 1505. His shrewd eyes sum you up as you watch, his mouth is tight and you can almost feel the veins in his cheek pulsing – but it’s the grasping hands resting on the frame of the picture that really make it work, as if he’s drumming his fingers with impatience.
John Donne had himself painted about 1595, and what a lovely poseur he is – slouch hat, moody look, arms folded, all fine lace and elegant long fingers. There’s something a bit Rolling Stones about him – but he does it so well, you don’t feel any affectation. A bit like his poetry really.
Hogarth, by Hogarth. Unlike other painters who create drama in their self-portraits (for instance Sir Joshua Reynolds’ picture of himself looking out, shading his eyes with his hand, as if painting a landscape), Hogarth shows himself warts and all at his daily work of painting – shaven head, stubby little legs and the preparatory chalk drawing still visible on the easel. But it’s what you don’t see that is most amusing about this picture – the dog peeing up against a pile of Old Masters, which he had second thoughts about and painted over.
Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Woman and pioneering feminist, was painted by John Opie with great restraint. Her simple cotton dress and the seriousness of her face, reflect the values of the Enlightenment – Rousseau-esque concentration on basic humanity, eschewing the display of wealth or social status. A powerful portrait of an important thinker.
By contrast, the portrait of Jane Austen is almost comically bad, and even her relatives apparently were not convinced by it. But you feel so close to the real Jane – the unfinished portrait was sketched by her sister Cassandra, and with its hesitant pencil lines, it is almost defiantly home-made, in a gallery stuffed with pretentious posed portraits.
An anamorphic portrait of Edward VI, by William Scrots (what a name!). Like Magic Eye, it will either frustrate you unendingly or fill you with delight. It looks like a mixture of Damien Hirst and Salvador Dali at first sight – you have to look at it from the right hand side and adjust your height till it is just at the right perspective, and then it springs out at you.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, our greatest engineer, is photographed against the background of huge chains, his hands in his pockets and a cigar in his mouth. His attitude is one of self-satisfaction and even smugness, but all his clothes are rumpled.
Another smoking portrait – the great actor Sir Richard Burton, taken from below, his face in shadow, his hand obscuring his mouth, the smoke from his cigarette drifting upwards, his hair unruly – all the darkness and rebelliousness that made him great seems to be caught in this photograph by Daniel Farson.
Coming right up to date, Chris Garnham’s double portrait of Gilbert and George neatly pays homage to their work, creating two little shrines, but also suggesting the forms of bird-cages or bakelite radios. I love the quirky humour and deadpan faces.
And finally a little bit of the macabre. The anonymous circular portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt looks as if it derives from the Italian Renaissance tradition of portrait busts or portrait medals – a fine profile, cut off at the neck, on a stippled blue background, very formal and at the same time well observed. But it was painted some time after his death – and indeed he was cut off at the neck, on Tower Hill, in 1554.
The National Portrait Gallery is never perhaps going to have the pull of the place next door with its Old Masters and impressionist paintings. But it has its own delights, so I hope this has inspired a few readers to go and take a look.