National Portrait Gallery


St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE


020-7306 0055



Opening times:

Daily 10:00-18:00 (Thur, Fri until 21:00)

How to get there:

Tube: Leicester Square/Charing Cross

Entry fee:


Founded in 1856, the first establishment of its type in the world, the National Portrait Gallery’s aim was to show images of those who had made Britain great. By virtuous example future generations would be instructed and inspired. As such, the gallery represents the fulfilment of a 19th-century educational ideal. Beginning with the ‘Chandos’ portrait of Shakespeare, the gallery’s first acquisition, an exceptional collection of historical images has been collected over the decades. It includes outstanding examples of the art of portraiture by famous artists, sculptors and photographers and represents distinguished figures from nearly 550 years of British history.


History of the Gallery

In 1846, stimulated by Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841), which argued that it was the actions of great men that shaped the world, Lord Stanhope made the first (of three) proposals to the House of Lords for the founding of a national portrait collection. In 1856 £2,000 was secured from the government for the purchase of portraits, and in 1859 the museum opened in a small house in Great George Street. Through the collecting efforts of the gallery’s first Director, George Scharf (1820–95), the two rooms and staircase were soon woefully inadequate. In 1870 the museum moved to South Kensington where the collection was hung chronologically, with instructive labels (an early instance of the museum caption) and signatures and autograph letters alongside the works. Finally, in 1889, after a spell at the Bethnal Green Museum, where conditions (condensation, a leaking glass roof) proved harmful to the pictures, the government provided a permanent site next to the National Gallery.

W.H. Alexander gave £80,000 for the new building, which was designed by his chosen architect, Ewan Christian (1890–95). The north block is in Florentine Renaissance palazzo style while the principal entrance, on St Martin’s Place, is inspired by the delicate terracotta façade of Santo Spirito, Bologna. The three portrait busts, by Frederick Thomas, on the entrance façade are the significant figures in the museum’s history: Stanhope, Macaulay (a founding trustee) and Carlyle (who became a trustee in 1857). Continuing round the building are images of artists, sculptors and historians.

The 1998–2000 Dixon/Jones alterations to the building, which swept away the curious mock-19th-century medieval-revival painted decoration in the entrance hall and stairs (part of the improvement scheme of Roderick Gradidge, 1990), have vastly improved the internal circulation. Straight ahead of the entrance lobby, with its original mosaic floor, is the bright, white hall of the new Ondaatje wing. From here, the contemporary collections are to the right; the long escalator takes visitors straight up to the second floor Tudor and Stuart galleries (and off them, the 18th-century and Regency collection); and the new stairs lead to the first floor Victorian and 20th-century pictures. On the third floor is the Portrait Restaurant (reservations essential, although there is also a bar) with its now famous bird’s-eye panorama of Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square with the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben beyond.


NB: Not all the collection can be shown at once. To minimise their exposure to light miniatures, works on paper and photographs are shown in selected rotations and a significant number of works are shown at the gallery’s three main outstations: Montacute House in Somerset, Beningbrough Hall, near York (both National Trust properties) and Boddelwyddan Castle in Clwyd, Wales. The entire collection can be viewed at the terminals in the IT mezzanine gallery.


Tour of the Gallery


Tudor and Stuart Collection (Second Floor; Rooms 1–8)

The National Portrait Gallery holds one of the best collections of 16th- and 17th-century British pictures in the world, including many iconic images of famous figures from Tudor and Stuart history. The small early panel portraits of Plantagenet rulers, including Richard III, are mostly 16th-century copies of 15th-century images, but are nevertheless rare survivals. The earliest portrait in the collection is the finely painted Henry VII (1505), his hand resting on a stone ledge, a composition taken from early Flemish portraiture. There are few portraits of women in the early collection, unless of queens or mistresses. Henry VIII’s wives Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are represented, as well as Catherine Parr, a full-length attributed to Master John, and formerly identified as Lady Jane Grey. The most important early work, probably the most important work in the gallery, is Holbein’s famous ‘cartoon’ (pictured on the previous page) for the left hand side of the mural in Whitehall Palace (since destroyed) celebrating the Tudor dynasty. The King’s commanding full-length pose served as the prototype for other images of him. Other Tudor figures include Thomas Cromwell; Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Chancellor, beheaded in 1535, shown surrounded by his family in a copy after Holbein’s lost portrait; Thomas Cranmer, burnt at the stake in 1556, by Gerlach Flicke (1545–46); and the curious anamorphic portrait of Edward VI, a distorted image which comes into line at one visual point.

Mary I is represented in a portrait by Master John, and Elizabeth I in several portraits: the full-frontal ‘Coronation Portrait’ (actually dateable to c. 1600); the ‘Darnley Portrait’, showing the queen in an intricately embroidered dress with a rich rope of pearls; and the full length ‘Ditchley Portrait’ by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (pictured opposite), an exceptionally fine image of the deliberately ageless queen c. 1592. It was painted to commemorate her stay at Ditchley, in Oxfordshire, as the guest of Sir Henry Lee. She stands on a globe, her feet on Oxfordshire, with lightning flashes behind her (banished by her radiance) and sunshine before, all typical of the symbolic portraiture so loved by the Elizabethans. Other portraits include Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester; the great circumnavigator Sir Francis Drake; Sir Walter Raleigh; and Shakespeare.

By James I’s reign canvas had become the most common support for painting, allowing for larger pictures. As well as James himself, by Daniel Mytens, are beautiful full-lengths by Robert Peake of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his sister Princess Elizabeth, in an intricately embroidered gown of gold and silver thread. From Charles I’s reign are images of Charles himself; his queen, Henrietta Maria; and Lord George Stuart, Seigneur d’Aubigny (c. 1638), a young royalist killed at the battle of Edgehill, an excellent late work by van Dyck, who was Charles I’s official painter.

One of the best works from the mid-17th century is Walker’s John Evelyn, a wonderful study of intellectual melancholia. The later 17th-century collection is particularly rich, with several portraits by Sir Peter Lely, Charles II’s official painter following the 1660 Restoration. As well as the king there are several portraits of his mistresses, including Nell Gwyn; members of the ‘Cabal’ government, including Lely’s Arlington; court wits such as the Earl of Rochester and, of course, Samuel Pepys, in a portrait by John Hayls that Pepys mentions in his famous diary.

The later Stuart collection includes the ruthless Judge Jeffreys, by John Michael Wright; a particularly beautiful Lely of Mary II, as Princess of Orange; a very fine full-length of Queen Anne by Michael Dahl; Anne’s close friend, and later enemy, the powerful Duchess of Marlborough, shown with her gold key of office around her waist; and Sir Godfrey Kneller’s small allegorical oil sketch of the Duke of Marlborough, the famous victor of Blenheim, shown on a rearing horse.


18th-century Collection (Second Floor; Rooms 9–14)

The 18th-century collection begins with figures from the early Hanoverian art world including artists’ self-portraits (Kneller, Dahl); the great architect of St Paul’s, Sir Christopher Wren; Hogarth (a terracotta bust by Roubiliac); and men of letters such as the satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. Hung together are Kneller’s important Kit-cat portraits, with their uniform frames, showing the politically Whig-minded members of the convivial drinking and dining club: Congreve and Dryden appear alongside politicians and courtiers. Philip Mercier’s beautiful small-scale work (1733) shows the great art patron Frederick, Prince of Wales and his sisters playing musical instruments in the grounds of Kew Palace.

Later Georgians include the great painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy of Arts founded in 1768. As well as his early self-portrait (c. 1749), he appears with fellow Academicians Sir William Chambers and Joseph Wilton in a triple portrait by François Rigaud. Literary figures include Dr Johnson, author of the Dictionary; and images of actors, including Sarah Siddons, painted full-length as Tragedy by Sir William Beechey, probably inspired by her famous appearance as Lady Macbeth.

There are portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay; the expanding East India Company is the subject of Francis Hayman’s important image Robert Clive, Receiving the Homage of Mir Jaffir after the Battle of Plassey; and dominating an entire wall is John Singleton Copley’s great work The Death of the Earl of Chatham (on long loan from Tate), showing the dramatic collapse of William Pitt in the House of Lords.


The Regency (Second Floor; Rooms 17–20)

The recently refurbished Regency Rooms occupy the second floor of the 1931–33 Duveen extension. The peacock blue-green walls, silvered coving and black marble dados and door surrounds have more to do with the date of the architecture than the contents of the rooms. The galleries actually span the period 1789 (the French Revolution) to 1832 (the Great Reform Act) rather than the Regency itself (1811–20). The gallery possesses Sir Thomas Lawrence’s autocratic profile oil sketch of the Prince Regent, as well as the great military and naval heroes of the day, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson. Romantic poets and novelists include Lord Byron (in ‘magnifique’ Albanian costume); Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portrait of the seventy-two year-old Wordsworth; Coleridge, Keats and Sir Walter Scott. Also in the collection is the delicate sketch of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra. The principal painting in the largest room (Room 20) is Sir George Hayter’s enormous The Reformed House of Commons (1833), painted to commemorate the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act, which widened the country’s electorate.


Victorian Collection (First Floor; Rooms 21–29)

The Victorian displays occupy Ewan Christian’s original 19th-century building, this part of which was remodelled by CZWG Architects in 1996. Immediately facing you (if you arrive via the 19th-century stairs rather than from the Ondaatje Hall) is a theatrical, pyramidal display on shelving of portrait busts of great Victorian patriarchs. Along the central corridor heading west (Room 22) is a formal procession of portraits of statesmen, interspersed with white marble busts. To either side are smaller galleries (Christian’s side-lit cabinets) with thematic hangs, basically chronological, showing images of the great writers, artists, travellers, inventors and politicians of the Victorian age. The British Empire’s self-confidence and evangelising spirit is summed up well in Sir George Strong Nares’ The Secret of England’s Greatness, showing Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to a kneeling African convert. Large historical portraits include Jenny Barret’s The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari (c. 1856–58). As well as these ponderous pieces is James Tissot’s wonderful Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870), a cavalry officer and explorer who died of a spear wound on an expedition to Khartoum. He is shown in uniform, relaxing on a sofa, with an elegantly twirled moustache.

Early Victorian writers and artists include Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot, as well as Branwell Brontë’s famous image of his three sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, a naïve work, discovered folded up on top of a cupboard by the second wife of Charlotte Brontë’s husband. John Ballantyne’s 1865 image of Landseer shows the great artist at work modelling the stone lions for the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Several of these pictures are curiously hung on projecting wall brackets, a nod towards Christian’s original intention to have screens, and to minimise the reflection from Christian’s re-exposed windows.

Among the gallery’s many images of inventors and men of science is Robert Howlett’s early 1858 photograph of the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, standing before the massive anchor chains of his steamship Leviathan (later the Great Eastern). Shown together are G.F. Watts’ ‘Hall of Fame’ portraits of the great men of his day, which Watts bequeathed to the gallery. His belief in the importance to history of men of intellectual power and vision, close to Carlyle’s theory of the Hero, coincided with the founding mission of the gallery. Included, of course, is Carlyle (who hated his portrait); William Morris; Matthew Arnold; and the influential philosopher John Stuart Mill. The gallery also owns Watts’ famous image of his wife for one year, the great actress Ellen Terry, shown at the age of 17 ‘choosing’ (the title of the work) between the worldly camellia and the innocence of violets. Terry—who was 30 years younger than Watts—left her husband and returned to the worldly stage.

The gallery’s collection includes Millais’ sombre, composed portraits of the two towering political figures, Gladstone and Disraeli, and John Singer Sargent’s powerful and brilliant 1908 portrait of the Earl of Balfour, a pivotal figure in British politics from the 1880s. It was thought by G.K. Chesterton to sum up not only the man but also the vague pessimism of the age. The gallery’s other late Victorian and turn-of-the-century images includes the Italian Boldini’s exuberant Lady Colin Campbell, socialite and journalist, shown in black chiffon with an impossible wasp waist; Napoleon Savory’s photograph of his ‘picturesque subject’, Oscar Wilde, taken in New York in 1882; and portraits of the avant-garde leaders Walter Sickert, Philip Wilson Steer and Augustus John.


20th-century Collection (First Floor; Rooms 30–32)

The first floor of the Duveen wing, internally transformed in 1996 by CZWG Architects, houses the 20th-century collection up to 1960. The main gallery has large glass screens allowing the backs of pictures to be seen, at first rather disconcerting. Figures from the period of the First World War include the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Sir James Guthrie’s large painting Some Statesmen of the Great War (1923–24), shows Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill, among others, seated below the vast winged figure Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (in the Louvre). Graham Sutherland’s oil sketch of Sir Winston Churchill is a reminder of the original, disliked by Churchill and destroyed by his wife. Post-war images include Sir James Gunn’s elegant Conversation Piece at Royal Lodge, Windsor, showing George VI and his family taking tea.

The period 1960–90 is shown in the Balcony Gallery in the Ondaatje wing. Works include a self-portrait by Lucien Freud; images of political leaders (Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Harold Macmillan); actors including Sir Alec Guinness and Dame Peggy Ashcroft; and authors, including Iris Murdoch, painted by Tom Phillips in 1984–86. The first-floor landing (Room 33) is devoted to portraits of the current royal family. On the Ground Floor is the 1990s and contemporary collection, which includes works specially commissioned by the gallery.



Eminent Britons

The three men responsible for the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery, the 5th Earl Stanhope (1805–75), Thomas Macaulay (1800–59) and Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) were all historians and biographers keenly interested in Britain’s past. Stanhope was the author of a seven-volume history of Georgian Britain, Macaulay of a monumental History of England, and Carlyle of the famous On Heroes (1841), in which he argued that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. All three agreed that a National Portrait Gallery should not only illustrate British history but should celebrate the individuals who had contributed to Brtain’s pre-eminence, a view reflective of mid-19th-century British optimism. The gallery was to be a historical resource where images of the great and good could be venerated and could inspire emulation.

The foundations of the collection were laid by George Scharf (1820–95). An etcher and illustrator keenly interested in history, Scharf’s tireless and mostly single-handed industry saw the collection grow from an original 57 pictures to over 1,000. His profound study of portraiture enabled him to authenticate as genuine or dismiss images, and his meticulous manuscript notebooks of portraits in private collections, with lively sketches and annotations, now in the gallery’s archive, remain a valuable resource. Scharf did not live to see the completion of the present building. Responsibility for the new gallery passed to Sir Lionel Cust (1859–1929), who was one of the main contributors to that magnificent late 19th-century enterprise, the publication of the Dictionary of National Biography. Recently revised (Oxford University Press 2004), the new volumes, 12 years in preparation, provide biographies of 50,000 famous Britons through the ages and are illustrated with 10,000 images from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, reinforcing the gallery’s position as the leading institution for the study of famous Britons and their iconography.



Photography (shown throughout the gallery)

Since the 1968 Cecil Beaton exhibition at the gallery, photography has been a growing part of the collection. The collection actually starts much earlier, in the 1840s. It includes over 100 images by the early Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, dating from the 1860s and 70s; famous images such as Frederick Henry Evans’ 1893 image of Aubrey Beardsley, and George Charles Beresford’s 1902 portraits of Virginia Woolf; over 1,000 works by Cecil Beaton; and images by, among others, Norman Parkinson, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton. Selections from the collection are shown throughout the displays.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

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