With a permanent collection that canters across history, from William Shakespeare to Dame Judi Dench, the National Portrait Gallery provides an artistic lens on Britain through the ages. The gallery is entirely unique in that it is as esteemed for the artists behind the portraits as it is for their subjects. The displays at the National Portrait Gallery are constantly evolving, with new acquisitions adding a sharp, contemporary edge and a dynamic rota of current exhibitions rolling out the season’s freshest flavours in portraiture. For these reasons, any curation of the National Portrait Gallery’s highlights errs on the impossible – the Top 10 shifts according to the seasonal displays. Here, we will walk you through the gallery’s trusted favourites for the exhibits not to miss.
Annie Lennox, Debbie Harry, Kate Bush, Sade, Amy Winehouse (painted by Marlene Dumas, no less): Room 32 is a star-studded roll call of the grandes dames of British music. There are plenty more leading names in here, too. A scruffy Ed Sheeran in oils, a 44-year-old Nelson Mandela in bromide print, Mary Quant and models in black and white are just a handful of the National Portrait Gallery highlights. For those more compelled by contemporary than classic, it all makes for a very satisfying saunter.
The darling of the British contemporary art scene, David Hockney has either painted or features in around 50 of the gallery’s portraits. The most famous of these is his vivid watercolour of Sir and Lady Christie – unusual for the fact that Hockney rarely accepts commissions, but undertook this one due to a longstanding friendship with the Christies. Our favourite of the artist himself? A rather lovely monochrome of Hockney as a young art graduate in 1963, wearing his signature dark-framed spectacles, snapped by Princess Margaret’s former husband, Lord Snowdon.
History buffs, rejoice. Among the National Portrait Gallery’s highlights is its documentation of Britain’s past, with its second floor dating back to the 15th century and ticking off the most important monarchs. The various portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, resplendent in pearls, jewels and rich brocades, in Room 2 get our vote. Look for the painting of her, artist unknown, that has been tellingly doctored – a posy replaces what was originally a serpent in her hand.
Vanessa Bell might not have been the most skilled Impressionist, but this 1912 painting of her sister, author Virginia Woolf, is a beautiful capture that knits together the ringleaders of the Bloomsbury Set in an ingenious subject-artist dynamic. The painter herself sits for a portrait in Duncan Grant’s 1918 oil on canvas, wearing a scarlet spaghetti-strap dress that would have raised more than a few eyebrows in her time. Continue browsing to discover portraits and photographs of the group’s various bohemian members.
British contemporary artist Marc Quinn’s macabre self-portrait features a true-to-life sculpture of the artist’s head, cast with eight pints of his frozen blood. The artist recreates the provocative piece every five years, as, despite the sophisticated refrigeration techniques used to preserve it within its Perspex showcase, the blood discolours over time.
A refreshing step away from the stiffly posed official royal portraits of old, John Wonnacott’s oil on canvas, commissioned in 2000 for HM The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, features the Windsors and Mountbattens – and, of course, the royal Welsh Corgies – in a moment of easy familiarity, as if captured just before the photographer’s flash. Look beyond the royal troupe to the gilded opulence of Buckingham Palace’s White Room behind – the detail is stunning.
A charismatic feature of London’s ‘it’ crowd during the early 2000s, Isabella Blow carved an indelible name for herself in British style. The late fashionista has been immortalised in this eerie assemblage of feathers, taxidermy crows and vipers, a stiletto and a stick of her favourite scarlet lipstick, arranged into a stark silhouette of the influencer’s profile. How do we know it’s Blow? The head is crowned with a flamboyant fascinator, reminiscent of her predilection for show-stopping hats.
One of the world’s most prestigious art awards, with a prize fund of £74,000, the BP Portrait Award is a firm highlight of the National Portrait Gallery’s programme. The competition has set in motion the rising stars of newcomers such as Craig Wylie and paid tribute to established artists such as Spanish realist Miriam Escofet. Don’t miss the exhibition of this year’s favourite entrants and shortlisted works from 13th June to 10th October 2019.
It’s not all sketches, oils, watercolours and photographs. Among the National Portrait Gallery’s highlights are Julian Opie’s digital portraits. You’ll recognise the stylised prints of Britpop quartet Blur, iconic of Y2K’s pared-back aesthetic, but be sure to seek out Opie’s more recent impression of James Dyson in James, Inventor. Fittingly, the British genius behind the vacuum cleaner previously served as the Provost at the Royal College of Art.
In a similar vein to Opie, Michael Craig-Martin’s stylised neon take on Dame Zaha Hadid beautifully captures the late architect’s formidable presence and boundary-breaking ambitions. This is the most charismatic portrait in Room 32’s contemporary collection, not least for the bold use of block colour, luminously mounted in LCD.
The National Portrait Gallery’s newest highlight flies the flag for the world’s leading women. Shirin Neshat’s photograph of Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani pioneer for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history, is overlaid with hand-scripted calligraphy. It’s a poem by a Pashto poet comparing Yousafzai with the legendary Malala of Maiwand, who rallied local Afghani fighters against British troops in the 19th century.
The National Portrait Gallery harvests delicious honey from its rooftop hives during spring and summer. It’s pasteurised, packaged in jars and sold at the gallery’s shop every autumn. The stock is quick to sell out, though, as the honey is something of a seasonal highlight for the National Portrait Gallery’s regulars. Our advice: see it, buy it.