Assembling the great, the good and the medieval
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