The newly reopened National Portrait Gallery is a cultural must-do this summer. Alongside a complete refurbishment of the historic building and the addition of public spaces and revitalised light-flooded galleries, the NPG has rehung its world-famous collection and acquired a wealth of new works. The Glossary takes a first look at the National Portrait Gallery.
Following a three-year closure for renovation, the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery has never looked better. Founded in 1856, the gallery is home to the most extensive collection of portraits in the world, from painting and drawings to photographs. The recently completed Inspiring People project has transformed the much-loved London institution, brilliantly journeying it from the nineteenth century to the present day.
The ambitious renovation has increased public space by around a fifth. Additional wings and galleries have been introduced and the visitor facilities modernised, with a new learning centre and a welcoming visitor entrance and public forecourt. The work on the Grade I listed building, carried out by Jamie Fobert Architects alongside a heritage team, has also included restoring the building’s myriad historical features which revealed hitherto undiscovered gems, including a Victorian terrazzo floor. Windows and doors have been opened up, flooding the space with natural light.
The permanent collection, which spans six centuries, has been re-presented. It is now hung chronologically, taking visitors on a journey from the Middle Ages to modernity. Alongside many of the NPG’s best-loved portraits, the gallery has also commissioned and acquired a wealth of new works, with a total of 1,100 on display (a third more than pre-closure). These include portraits of Sir Nicholas Serota by Sir Steve McQueen, Zadie Smith by Toyin Ojih Odutola and Sir Michael Eavis by Sir Peter Blake.
The tone is set early on, at the gallery’s new Ross Place entrance on the North facade, just off Trafalgar Square. Here, three large doors welcome visitors, each one incorporating low-relief bronze panels etched by artist Tracey Emin. The etchings represent female faces, drawn to be “unidentifiable” to represent “every woman, throughout time.” Emin’s work speaks aptly to the key themes around the NPG’s reopening, including female autobiography and acknowledging the true faces of Britain, to present an inclusive and dynamic picture of society today.
Inside, visitors find themselves in the Ondaatje Wing Main Hall, which is open-plan, airy and spacious. The eye is immediately caught by the floor-to-ceiling ‘living wall’. Flashing across the screen are cultural icons, including David Bowie and the late Queen Elizabeth II, who poses in vibrant yellow with her corgi, whose CGI moving ears are a sweet and well-received detail.
Also on the ground floor is the Work in Progress commission by Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake, which is part of the gallery’s Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture project in collaboration with the CHANEL Culture Fund to enhance and increase representation. The seven-panel collage showcases 130 inspiring women, from the Suffragettes to Mary Quant. By the escalator is History Makers, a display that celebrates icons influencing culture and society today. Ed Sheeran, Stormzy, Baroness Doreen Lawrence and Anna Wintour all feature.
Other changes include the opening of the Weston Wing, previously office space, which now houses, amongst other things, A Creative Constellation: Contemporary Women in the Arts. The photographs and paintings all hold female subjects and are painted or photographed by women. Favourites include a poignant painting of Amy Winehouse by Marlene Dumas and black and white prints of Kate Moss.
The permanent collection still stands proud, re-displayed to span the Duveen, Ondaatje and (the new) Blavatnik Wings across the second and third floors. While including all the famous portraits of the English monarchy, including King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, additions such as Everlyn Nicodemus’ self-portrait – the first in the collection painted by a Black female artist – introduces new voices into the portfolio of artists. Interactive screens, text panels and audio bring the paintings and their formation to life.
All these changes are sure to impress visitors, but it’s the opening exhibitions which are a highlight. Yevonde: Life and Colour (until 15 October) – the largest retrospective to date of the ground-breaking 20th century London-based photographer Yevonde Middleton – perfectly encapsulates the energy of the Inspiring People transformation. The exhibition showcases Yevonde’s experimental colour and print techniques, particularly in Dorothy Gisbourne as Psyche and her portraits of Vivien Leigh, and underscores the Gallery’s new focus on photographic mediums.
Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm, which opens on 28 June (until 1 October), is a series of hitherto unseen self-portraits by Paul McCartney, offering an unprecedented view of the whirlwind that defined The Beatles’ success. Over 250 photographs form a chronological documentation of McCartney’s developing style and cultural influence. Despite being taken while ‘Beatlemania’ encompassed the world, the show promises to offer an intimate picture of the acclaimed music star.
Indeed, McCartney is headlining the First Look Festival which will run from 24 June to 2 July, alongside Stanley Tucci. Across the two weeks, expect both in-person and digital immersive events from DJ sets to interviews and panel discussions.
The visitor experience will be further enhanced with the arrival of Richard Corrigan’s rooftop restaurant The Portrait which welcomes hungry art lovers from 5 July. Diners can choose between watching the expert chefs at the small counter space or gazing out at the panoramic views of London’s bustling west end. Additionally, Audrey Green by Daisy Green café is the perfect place to reset between exhibitions, while Larry’s Bar offers cocktails in the exposed brick vaults of the gallery.
With an imaginative programme of exhibitions scheduled throughout the year, the National Portrait Gallery’s reopening is nothing short of a triumph as it seeks to frame the future of portraiture while still remaining an ode to the past.
St Martin’s Place, Westminster, London, WC2H 0HE