As­sem­bling the great, the good and the medieval

Country Life Every Week - - Athena - Cul­tural Cru­sader

OF all our na­tional col­lec­tions, the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery (NPG) has per­haps de­parted most rad­i­cally from its found­ing pur­pose. It was con­ceived as a means of il­lus­trat­ing the na­tion’s his­tory: in the words of its lead­ing Par­lia­men­tary ad­vo­cate, Lord Stan­hope, in 1856, the col­lec­tion would fo­cus on those ‘who are most hon­ourably com­mem­o­rated in Bri­tish his­tory as war­riors or as states­men, or in arts, in lit­er­a­ture or in science’.

As it was founded, more­over, the liv­ing had no place in this dis­play. This ex­clu­sion cer­tainly pre­vented the gallery from be­ing over­whelmed in the first cen­tury of its ex­is­tence by huge quan­ti­ties of paint­ings that we would un­doubt­edly dis­miss—at best—as in­dif­fer­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tions of nonen­ti­ties.

Over the past 50 years, the gallery has un­der­gone a fun­da­men­tal change of em­pha­sis. Most im­por­tantly, in 1969, the ban on ac­quir­ing por­traits of liv­ing peo­ple was lifted. Pos­ter­ity will judge whether the NPG has shown the nec­es­sary strength of judg­ment in deal­ing with those ea­ger for a place in the na­tion’s his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness. Cer­tainly, in some of its flir­ta­tions with celebrity, it could be ac­cused of jour­ney­ing per­ilously close to the ter­ri­tory of Madame Tus­saud’s (which Athena en­joys for dif­fer­ent rea­sons).

Where the NPG has been at its best in en­gag­ing with the con­tem­po­rary world has been in the cel­e­bra­tion of por­trai­ture it­self, as for ex­am­ple by host­ing, since the 1980s, the an­nual BP Por­trait Award. Again, this was not an en­deav­our an­tic­i­pated by its founders, who any­way set lit­tle store by the qual­ity of the paint­ings they col­lected.

Over time, the change in the NPG’S fo­cus has left the ‘his­toric’ col­lec­tion phys­i­cally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally ma­rooned. Athena would sug­gest, how­ever, that there is an ini­tia­tive that might ma­te­ri­ally ad­vance the NPG’S found­ing pur­pose of pre­sent­ing Bri­tish his­tory to the pub­lic through his­toric por­trai­ture.

The NPG al­ready has a hand­ful of medieval por­traits, copies taken from the sculpted ef­fi­gies of kings in West­min­ster Abbey. Why doesn’t it re­turn to the Abbey and other great churches up and down the coun­try to cre­ate a much fuller dis­play of such ma­te­rial com­mis­sioned from con­tem­po­rary por­traitists? Funer­ary mon­u­ments present eas­ily the great­est as­sem­blage of Bri­tish por­trai­ture in ex­is­tence.

Col­lect­ing im­ages of ef­figy por­traits, more­over, would strengthen the cov­er­age of the gallery in pre­cisely those ar­eas where it is lack­ing, from the 15th to the 17th cen­turies.

And where would all this ma­te­rial go? Why not cover the huge blank wall above the es­ca­la­tor that sweeps vis­i­tors up to the Tu­dor gallery with a chrono­log­i­cal dis­play of ef­figy por­traits. Yes, these would be more im­ages of the great and good, but they would im­mea­sur­ably broaden the gallery’s col­lec­tion and nar­ra­tive. Our his­tory, after all, doesn’t start with the Tu­dors and nor does the story of the Bri­tish por­trait.

‘Our his­tory doesn’t start with the Tu­dors and nor does the story of the Bri­tish por­trait

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