SIMON HEFFER HINTERLAND
The National Portrait Gallery brings history to life better than any book can
Ihave always, through ignorance, struggled to appreciate paintings. I must have some visual sense, since I love architecture, an interest stimulated by my obsession with history, which for an uncouth man such as me makes comprehension easier. That obsession also makes the National Portrait Gallery my favourite gallery.
The continuum of English history unfolds upon the gallery’s walls: the history of the world, as Carlyle said, being the biography of great men (and it is, for some time, mostly men). A visit should be compulsory for every schoolchild, to make up for the almost-always inadequate teaching they receive in history, whether they are privately or state educated.
The gallery conveys the personalities of the past more vividly than most words can – however good the writer. I was forcefully reminded of this the other day, when I spent a couple of hours there, starting with the famous portrait of Richard III, painted, one imagines, fresh from his ordering of the murder of the princes in the tower. The Tudors follow in quick succession – Henry VII and VIII, then poor old Edward VI and his half-sisters Bloody Mary (an unprepossessing likeness that excited some ungallant remarks from James Anthony Froude, the Victorian historian) and Elizabeth I.
Mytens’s portrait of James I and VI signals the union of the Crowns. John Donne, looking more a lothario than a clergyman, and Shakespeare symbolise the rich cultural life of the Jacobean age. Mytens also painted James’s unfortunate son, Charles I; and the cast of the civil wars surrounds him. There is a version of the van Dyck of Archbishop Laud that hangs in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge; in London he looks almost benign, in Cambridge cynical. The 18th-century collection shows society beyond royalty and politicians. Christopher Wren (painted by Kneller), Jonathan Swift (by Jervas), Alexander Pope (by Richardson), Hogarth and Reynolds (by themselves), Handel (by Hudson) Sterne and
Boswell (both by Reynolds) reflect what a titanic age for literature and art the Hanoverian era was. And as Britain became stronger and wealthier, the portraits of those who made it so become more distinguished, and more evocative of burgeoning greatness.
The Victorian and Edwardian galleries have always been my favourite. Perhaps, as an historian of that period, I feel well-acquainted with its characters; or perhaps it is because of the force of personality that emerges from them, especially in the swagger portraits. Carlyle, by Millais, exudes profundity and purpose, and told the artist he thought the likeness excellent. The same depth is evoked by Millais’s Gladstone, painted when the subject was 70 but at the height of his powers. Luke Fildes’s portrait of Edward VII in his coronation robes is almost the acme of swagger, were there not, for comparison, also Boldini’s awesome portrait of Lady Colin Campbell.
The 20th-century galleries, up to 1960, reflect a period dominated by war, with great ensemble portraits of generals, admirals and statesmen by Cope, Sargent and Guthrie. Orpen’s portrait of Churchill, painted just after the debacle of the Dardanelles, displays a man determined to prove his critics wrong. The great cultural renaissance of the 20th century is also excellently served, with Lamb’s portrait of Stanley Spencer, Augustus John’s arresting Dylan Thomas, Dora Carrington’s E M Forster and – inevitably my favourite, radiating humanity – Gerald Kelly’s portrait of Vaughan Williams in great old age.
Every silver lining must have a cloud, and what the gallery needs to improve is its display of paintings from the past 50 years or so. Here one senses a box-ticking desperation to represent popular culture, women and ethnic minorities, irrespective of the merit of the work or its subject. The space occupied recently by a ridiculous exhibition about Michael Jackson could have been better used displaying portraits of some of the really significant people of the past six decades. With luck it soon will be.