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30 June 2023

Mugshots of a nation

After a three-year facelift, the bandages are now off the National Portrait Gallery.

By Michael Prodger

Had the great illusionist MC Escher designed a building, it would be the National Portrait Gallery. Since it was opened at its present site in 1896, this temple of British worthies, tacked on to the back of the National Gallery, has offered a series of staircases and galleries that mess with the visitor’s perceptions. It is a gallery singularly lacking in calm grandeur, offering four squeezed floors, thin and often small display rooms, haphazard natural lighting, a modest entrance off a kink on the chaotic Charing Cross Road… as a pantheon of the nation’s great and good it has long been both ramshackle and apologetic.

The NPG has undergone several remodellings over the years in an attempt to rectify the original deficiencies. Now, at a cost of £41m and after a three-year closure, the latest revivification has been unveiled and it is transformative. The architect Jamie Fobert has “found” 950 square metres of extra space previously occupied by offices and services, opened windows and brought the original rooftop lanterns into proper use, added subterranean learning spaces, a lecture theatre and cafés, and resited the shop.

His most significant intervention, however, was to knock through three arched windows on the north side of the building to form a new and stately entrance opening on to a modest piazza. Inside there is a generous foyer that endows the building with an immediate and necessary sense of calm. Although it can’t match the civic statement represented by the pairing of the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square, the NPG now offers a sense of arrival rather than of furtive slipping in.

Inside, the redesign of the gallery displays – by Nissen Richards architects – has been equally thoroughgoing. The Tudor portraits are hung in atmospheric low light; the Georgian and Victorian paintings on the upper floor are offset by an unlikely but effective Pantone chart of wall colours – plum, purple, green, orange; while clusters of portrait busts are dotted throughout, less as individual works than as new composite sculptures. A welcome stacked hang has been instituted, with portraits rising five high in some galleries. Enfilades of rooms have been given a focal point, such as the blushing bottom of the life model in Laura Knight’s 1913 self-portrait or the swagger of Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai – the first Polynesian to visit Britain and a Georgian celebrity – recently saved for the nation in a gallery share with the Getty Center in Los Angeles at a cost of £50m. There remains room for only a fraction of the NPG’s collection of 340,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs but the rehang, chronological with interwoven thematic clusters, makes the lucky pictures tell.

[See also: Artificial intelligence is blurring the lines between “content” and “art”]

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In 2023 the portraits themselves present the curators with problems as marked as those presented by the building. Here is a collection that is predominantly male, white and in many instances of figures whose status is more equivocal than it used to be. The gallery’s director, Nicholas Cullinan, has stated that: “We aren’t in the business of passing fashionable moral judgement on historical figures.” And indeed, the labelling and organisation deals with projecting the cultural and societal mores of the modern world with discrimination.

The wall texts around women and figures involved with issues of race, colonisation and gender are spattered with careful phrasing about “opening up conversations”, “questioning” narratives and issues that are “complex”. There are sections devoted to “Slavery and Abolition”, “Dismantling the British Empire”, “The Romantics and the Environment” and the like, but they sit within larger gatherings of contemporaries. And there’s wit and sassiness in some of the hangings. For example, a magnificently bombastic paean to the empire, Thomas Jones Barker’s The Secret of England’s Greatness (1862-63) showing Queen Victoria graciously presenting a Bible to an African ambassador in generic finery, hangs next to a c1887 Yoruba carving from West Africa of the Queen as a mixture of a bug-eyed Lewis chessman and John Tenniel’s monstrous Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.

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Before the rehang, 35 per cent of the portraits in the 20th- and 21st-century galleries were of or by women; now they comprise 48 per cent. Admittedly, this has meant some bash-on-the-head reminders that women can be creative. So, there is a room of female self-portraits – including some negligible paintings by some very minor painters – and a “Creative Constellation: Contemporary Women in the Arts” with everyone from Judi Dench to the wistful singer Anohni (formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons).

However, the curators also include some revealing displays about the nature and different forms of portraiture itself. There is a room given over to death and life masks – William Blake is engaged in a rather menacing face off with Marc Quinn’s self-portrait head made from ten pints of his own blood – and others devoted to cartes de visite and silhouettes.

Upping the distaff representation also accounts for the 45 female faces designed by Tracey Emin for the panels of the bronze entrance doors. She wants visitors to “stand in front of the doors and say, ‘She looks like my mother; she looks like my best friend, my daughter.’” However, if anyone’s female relative has the misfortune to resemble one of these ungainly Everywoman doodles they should, like the first Mrs Rochester, be confined to the attic.

But then the NPG has always been a gallery that has had to deal with the fact that it contains few indisputably great portraits: it is an art gallery whose primary concern is not art. Its response has been to sprinkle celebrities among weightier figures whose mark on history will be less fleeting – a Lenny Henry or Bianca Jagger for every Wilberforce or Thatcher. This latest facelift finds a nice balance between the two – as it does with mixing photography, sculpture and painting. It doesn’t much matter that there is a great deal of ordinary art on display since the faces it depicts belong to some far from ordinary people.

[See also: The battle for the soul of London]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia