The National Portrait Gallery houses the most extensive collection of portraits worldwide, containing pictures of historic British figures from Tudor times right through to the modern-day.
- The only surviving portrait of William Shakespeare believed to have been painted from life.
- One of the most important portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, thought to have been painted by a visiting Flemish artist.
- A sketch of much-loved author Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, one of the smallest images on view.
What to See and Do
The Portrait Galleries
The galleries at the National Portrait Gallery contain some of the most important portraits of famous Britons from across the centuries. From full-blown portraits to miniatures, the galleries are a who’s who of the important and influential.
History buffs can admire the many portraits of the Royal family as well as artists, authors, politicians and more. Set out in time chronological order across the gallery floors, you can stroll through hundreds of years of history and come face to face with the people who helped shape that history.
The National Portrait Gallery possesses over 250,000 original photographs and negatives dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Important collections held by the gallery include the Cecil Beaton collection as well as three albums by Hill and Adamson from between 1843-48, some of the earliest photographs ever taken. These collections chart British society from the emergence of photography right through to the present day.
Sculptures and Representations
Portraits and photographs are not the only way to record a person’s likeness for posterity. Sculptures and busts of historic figures can also be found in the gallery, as well as quirkier forms of representation such as on mugs and Toby jugs. Bronze medals with the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and Christopher Wren are also kept at the gallery as are the fun ‘sculptoons’ of the likes of Harold Wilson and Christine Keeler.
The gallery is not all about serious portraits and depictions of British historical figures. Satire has played an important role down the years in lampooning British society. George Cruikshank’s cartoons depicting a corpulent George IV is one such fine example among the collection the gallery holds.
Did You Know: (5 interesting facts!)
- The gallery’s extensive collection of portraits numbers in excess of 215,000 pieces covering over 500 years of British history.
- The first portrait the gallery acquired in 1856 was of William Shakespeare, possibly the only picture of him from life.
- The earliest dated portrait in the gallery’s collection is of King Henry VII, with the inscription recording 29 October 1505.
- The miniature of Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orleans, is the smallest portrait held by the gallery, possibly produced in the 17th century and measuring an impressively tiny 19mm x 16mm.
- The gallery has a darker history when in 1909 a man shot his wife before killing himself in the gallery’s room 27 in front of visitors and staff, who had heard them in disagreement over a painting prior to the incident.
- June 1856 National Portrait Gallery founded in Great George Street, Westminster, following approval by the House of Commons.
- January 1859 Gallery opens to the public.
- 1870 Relocation to new home in the buildings of the Royal Horticultural Society in South Kensington.
- April 1896 Gallery opens on site of present-day location at St Martin’s Place, adjoining the National Gallery.
- July 1914 Portrait of Thomas Carlyle attacked and damaged by suffragettes
- 1917 National Photographic Record began with Walter Stoneman the first photographer.
- March 1933 Duveen Wing of gallery opened by King George V and Queen Mary.
- 1963 First large scale temporary exhibition, The Winter Queen, Elizabeth of Bohemia.
- 1969 Gallery begins accepting portraits of people still living.
- 1993 Heinz archive and gallery opens to the public.
Facilities and Accessibility
If you head up to the top of the gallery you will find the Portrait Restaurant and Bar which provides some of the best views across London. The gallery also offers a selection of shops, all located on the ground floor. The gift shop has a good range of jewellery, stationery, seasonal products and more to remember your visit by. There is also a bookshop specialising in British history, art and photography, plus an exhibition shop stocking exclusives in homeware, gifts, stationery and more.
There is step-free access to the gallery through the shop entrance on St Martin’s Place, the main entrance having a single step access. The gallery layout is in chronological order and a map is available with all the relevant information including location of lifts. There are four accessible uni-sex toilets situated across the levels of the gallery.
Large print exhibition guides and maps are available, while British Sign Language tours and picture description gallery talks are held at certain times of the week and month. Audio guides are also available, including ones interpreted with British Sign Language. Many films and interviews contain subtitles, while there are induction loops for enhanced sound.