The National Portrait Gallery

Adjacent to the National Gallery, just off from Trafalgar Square on the smaller St Martin’s Place is Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. Like its sister institution, the National Gallery, it is free for all to visit the collection. But unlike most galleries, the paintings are selected and displayed not in recognition of the artist but for the person they painted. As a result the collection contains, paintings, busts, sculptures and photographs of prominent British Citizens and subjects. Previously, the only two conditions were to be of significant standing (e.g historically important, or more generally famous) and to have died. In 1969, the second condition was removed, and portraits of those still living were allowed into the Gallery. Today, that means you can see over a hundred and sixty thousand portraits of historical figures, the famous, dignitaries and royalty both living and long dead.

Created by the British Government in 1856, the collection was somewhat homeless untill 1896 when its present gallery was built. The site was chosen due to its proximity to the National Gallery, meaning the two collections could be viewed on the same day with minimal travel time. While they are separate institutions, with separate access, they are quite literally next door to each other.

The collection holds the portraits of a wide range of people, some remain famous to this day while others have slipped into obscurity. Its most famous portrait is known as ‘The Chandos Portrait’ which depicts William Shakespeare (assuming its him of course). You can also see portraits of the Bronte sisters, a sculpture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in Medieval costume, and other famous royals such as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and the current Royal Family. Since 1969, the collection has grown and modernised considerably and you can now see paintings and photographs of contemporary celebrities, including Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Michael Parkinson and Daniel Radcliffe (one of the youngest people to have their portrait in the collection). Portraits are either donated or commissioned by the gallery, and the only conditions is that they must depict an individual considered to be ‘one of the nation’s great men or women’ and/or add to the ‘study and understanding of portraiture’. Focusing on the sitter, rather than the artist, means there is a wide range of artists on display from all eras. Many of whom we would have never have heard of, and in the modern era, can represent a fantastic debut for up and coming artists.

Photographs are also included in the collection, again depicting ‘the nations greatest people’ but are also of historical and cultural importance. Its not just modern photographs either, some of the earliest examples of photographic portraiture are included in the collection, including the wedding photograph of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The Gallery also hosts a wide range of exhibitions and special displays, aimed to further promote portraiture in all its forms, rather than just display famous Britons. These exhibitions may or may not charge admission, but when they do it is rarely in excess of £10 and discounts for students and children are available.

The National Portrait Gallery is a very interesting place to visit, paintings and photos from all eras are displayed. Rather than being divided into eras or styles, this collection is more about the content than the artist, giving a more relaxed and far more fun vibe than the standard art gallery. Guided tours are availble for free, or an audio-guide for a small charge, just ask at the information desk.

The gallery is open everyday from 10am to 6pm (9pm on Thursdays and Fridays), entrance to the main collection is always free. There is a restaurant, bar and cafe on site. The gallery is walking distance from Leicester Square, Charing Cross, Embankment, and Westminster Tube Stations, you can also take the bus, or walk from many surrounding attractions (Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square etc).

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