Tucked around the corner from the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856 with a single aim: to gather together portraits of famous (and infamous) British men and women. More than 150 years and 160,000 portraits later, it is an essential stop for all history and literature buffs. The spacious galleries make it a pleasant place to visit, and you can choose to take in a little or a lot. Need to rest those legs? Then use the Portrait Explorer in
the Digital Space on the ground-floor mezzanine for interactive, computer-aided exploration of the gallery's extensive collection. If you visit with little ones, ask at the desk about the excellent Family Trails, which make exploring the galleries with children much more fun. On the top floor, the Portrait Restaurant has one of the best views in London—a panoramic vista of Nelson's Column and the backdrop along Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament.
Galleries are arranged clearly and chronologically, from Tudor times to contemporary Britain. A Holbein miniature of Henry VIII is perhaps the most famous image in the Tudor Gallery, although the enormous portrait of Elizabeth I—bejewelled and literally astride the world in a powerful display of Imperial intent—is by far the most impressive. The huge permanent collections include portraits of Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, and Jane Austen. Look for the four Andy Warhol Queen Elizabeth II silkscreens from 1985 and Maggi Hambling's surreal self-portrait. Contemporary portraits range from the iconic (Julian with T-shirt—an LCD screen on a continuous loop—by Julian Opie) to the creepy (Marc Quinn's Self, a realization of the artist's head in frozen blood) and the eccentric (Tim Noble's ghoulish Head of Isabella Blow). Temporary exhibitions can be explored in the ground-floor Wolfson and Porter galleries.
St. Martin's Pl., London, WC2H 0HE, England
020-7312–2463; 020-730–0555-recorded switchboard information
Apr 2, 2008
A good museum, though they collect paintings because of subject matter, not necessarily because of artistic quality. Nonetheless a fascinating gallery to visit. It's also free.