The Na­tional Por­trait Gallery brings his­tory to life bet­ter than any book can

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THEATRE -

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.

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