The gallery was founded in 1856 to collect portraits of famous men and women. It displays portraits from 16th century to present day.

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Review of the National Portrait Gallery, by Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent, VisitMuseums.com

The National Portrait Gallery Review, London

Adjoining the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery in London is an art museum dedicated to housing portraits of famous and important British people. The portraits are selected based on the merit of the person being painted, not the artist. Although not all of the portraits here are exceptional artistically, they offer us the chance to see important people from Britain's past who never lived in the age of the camera. In addition, each artist has a different perspective of the subject and is able to bring out the beauty that they see in each individual subject. Since the gallery is so close to the National Gallery, I'd recommend stopping by here if you were already planning on going to the National Gallery. Although the National Portrait Gallery is smaller than the nearby museum of western art, it still offers much to see, especially for those who have a keen interest in the human subject.
The ground floor of the museum houses the Gallery's collection of modern portraits and commissions. Here you can see portraits of some of the isle's most famous living people, including actors like Judi Dench and Timothy Spall, performers such as David Bowie and Amy Winehouse, and of course British Royalty like Prince Harry. Some of the portraits I recommend that you check out include Bowie's, Dame Maggie Smith's, and the video portrait of David Beckham. Bowie's portrait, by the painter Stephen Finer, is an abstract oil on canvas that really captures the essence of David Bowie, who is ever the enigmatic man. Finer paints his subjects by allowing the paint on his canvas to accumulate over time, after which he continues to work and re-work the paint into an image that he feels is fitting of his subject. Here, the splotches of paint form an image of Bowie that is at once him, but at the same time disconnected and almost puzzling to view. It is a truly interesting piece that will hold your eye for quite some time. On the other hand, the portrait of Dame Maggie Smith is a clear and distinct image that captures the regal woman in a relaxed pose. Smith, known for playing stern characters like Professor McGonagall on the screen, here appears frank and familiar in contrast to her acting persona. The video portrait of David Beckham, by Sam Taylor-Wood, is an intimate portrait of the world famous athlete. Shown sleeping in Madrid after a training session, Beckham appears vulnerable while retaining the physical beauty that he is perhaps more known for nowadays. Lastly, you should check out the much criticized portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge that now hangs in the same room. The portrait has been criticized for making Catherine appear old and tired, and failing to capture her beauty and youthfulness. The painter, Paul Emsley, argues that his portrait captures her sense of warmth and that it has been panned because it is an image of her that is so unexpected. Whatever you may think, I suggest you see it in person if you have the opportunity before you make a final judgment.
The first floor of the Gallery focuses on portraits from the Victorian-era to more early-modern times. In addition to the Queen and members of her royal court, the opening room of the first floor also houses paintings and busts of other important people from the time, including the archaeologist Sir Charles Thomas Newton, the famous scientist Charles Darwin, and the cardinal and theologian John Newman. The most notable portraits in this room of course are of Queen Victoria herself, and of her husband Prince Albert. The portrait of the young Queen, captures her on the day of her coronation, when she inherited the throne at the age of 18. The painter, Sir George Hayter, sought to capture some of the idealism of Victoria in the portrait here. The portrait of her husband, Prince Albert, is a beautiful painting that captures the Prince in a regal pose of authority that contrasts with the apparently messy background (albeit a still lavish one) he stands in front of. The remainder of the floor focuses less on royalty, so for those who wish to see portraits of kings and queens you should make your way up to the second floor.Charles Darwin
The second floor begins with a chronological sequence of British royalty, beginning with a few early medieval kings and the Tudor dynasty, and ending with the Stuarts. Five statues of the English Kings Edward II, Edward III, Edward Prince of Wales, Richard II, and Henry IV grace the entrance to room one of this floor. As you move into the next room, you will be able to view the portraits of many of England's kings and queens from this time period, as well as many important members of the royal court. One portrait of King Edward VI, painted when he was nine, is painted in distorted perspective. When you look at it head on it appears squished and compact, but if you look at it from the right (a hole in the glass will guide you) it appears in the proper perspective. This is the floor I recommend spending the most time on, as it is so well laid out and many of the portraits are beautiful and of very notable people with interesting stories (many of the side notes that accompany the portraits end with “they were executed” in some manner). Some of the portraits you must see are of Queen Elizabeth I and Charles II (for the sheer scope alone) and of course the most famous portrait of William Shakespeare. Hanging in room 4, this is the only portrait of the legendary bard that has any claim to have been painted from life. Interestingly enough, there is even some uncertainty regarding whether or not this painting is of the playwright, although the common consensus is that it is. Overall, while the museum as a whole offers many images for you to see, I found the second floor to be the highlight of the National Portrait Gallery. If you are in the mood for some art, spend a day at the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery as well.

-By Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent, VisitMusuems.com

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open daily from 10:00 to 18:00, thursdays and fridays open until 21:00

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2 St Martin's Place
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WC2
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