The new NPG: Worth waiting for
By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Arts' Correspondent
Ross Place Entrance and the new forecourt of the NPG. Photograph © Olivier Hess
After a three-year £41 million renovation and rehang, the National Portrait Gallery last week reopened its doors to the public, and I have to say it looks wonderful.
First of all, there’s a trio of fabulous doors to enter through. Instead of, before, it seeming like you’d gone through the side door of a gallery off Trafalgar Square, now it does justice as the entry into the most extensive collection of portraits in the world.
Artworks in themselves, these bronze panelled doors proclaim that this is the place to be, a place for everyone.
Forty-five faces of women, portraits of “every woman” have been hand drawn by Tracey Emin CBE RA and cast into elegant low-relief bronze panels on massive doors - they make a brilliant statement of intent.
The new doors at the entrance to the NPG, designed by Tracey Emin. Photograph © Olivier Hess
The faces - of mothers, daughters, sisters and friends, interpret them as you wish, says Emin – are central to the vision of the new National Portrait Gallery. They add both a human touch to the entrance and are the artist’s contemporary response to the under-representation of women in historical art collections.
“Women in history are greatly underrepresented. I didn’t want to depict specific or identifiable figures. I felt like the doors of the National Portrait Gallery should represent every woman, every age and every culture throughout time.”
Emin who used herself as a mental template for the work, added that as with all art, it’s up to the viewer to discern what they feel and what or who they see. “I want people to stand in-front of the doors and say, ‘she looks like my mother, she looks like my best friend, my daughter’. People might also relate and see an element of pain or heartbreak in the images.”
Left: Portrait Drawings. Photograph © Harry Weller. Right: Close up of the doors. Photograph © Olivier Hess
This celebration of women counterbalances the sculpted roundels above on the Gallery’s façade, depicting 18 notable men from British history.
The building, which opened in 1896, has been rejuvenated, outside and inside. There’s a new public space, Ross Square, outside, and inside is more light-filled than ever before, more open, more welcoming, less tired in effect; it is a revelation. New cafés, galleries, learning centre, hang, new acquisitions…together telling as Director Nicholas Cullinan puts it, “a living portrait of Britain”.
On the ground floor a new ‘History Makers’ display has you walking past, in quick succession, an impressive range of people who influence contemporary life – from royalty to campaigners like Baroness Doreen Lawrence, sporting personalities such as Wimbledon champion Sir Andy Murray, grime artist Stormzy to children's writer Dame Jacqueline Wilson, and Michael Eavis, Glastonbury Festival founder and dairy farmer, who arms akimbo, seems to joyously greet us, it’s an uplifting start…
Left: The Contemporary Collection in The Mary Weston Gallery in The Weston Wing at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo © David Parry. Right: The Blavatnik Wing at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photograph © Jim Stephenson
Upstairs, the revamp continues to show its colours. Literally, for upstairs in the opening galleries of the chronological redisplay - the walls are painted in brilliant reds, purple, greens and so on, that revitalise the displays. Not that the exquisite paintings in the Tudor gallery need any enlivening, sparkling as they and their subjects do in jewel-like colours and costumes.
From Tudor to the Reformation, Regency, Victorian to contemporary and all between, the names of the sitters challenging memory, the captions pleasingly detailed and easily digestible, here was a condensed, beautifully presented lesson in British history.
Of the more than 50 new acquisitions to be seen, the laurels must go to Joshua Reynolds’ unforgettable life-size Portrait of Mai (Omai), 1776, the first Polynesian to visit Britain. The seven-foot-high portrait of Mai was jointly acquired by the NPG and the Getty in Los Angeles after an exceptional fundraising campaign raising £50 million.
The painting is said to hold a pivotal place in global art history as the first ever grand portrait of a non-white subject. Known as “Omai” in England (Mai was his real name; the O came about as a result of a misinterpretation of the Tahitian form of address), Mai (ca. 1753-1779) was a native of Raiatea, an island now part of French Polynesia. He arrived in England in 1774 on board HMS Adventure, sailing with Captain James Cook returning from his second voyage to the Pacific, and he stayed for two years, captivating Georgian society, received by royalty, and becoming quite the celebrity.
The Portrait display, featuring Portrait of Mai (Omai) by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1776) at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photograph© Dave Parry
For the portrait he is dressed in an exotic flowing gown and turban, but look closely and his feet are bare and hands tattooed. Dignified and spellbinding, it dominates the end wall of the 18th-century gallery, and is nicely juxtaposed with other notable figures of the period such as Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Cook aboard the Endeavour, on his first voyage, and Lord Nelson, and Emma Hamilton and so on.
Impossible of course in one visit to do justice to the 1,100 portraits in the NPG’s redisplay– over a third more are on show now than pre-closure, paintings, portrait busts, sculptures, silhouettes, masks among them - so, yet again, I am thankful that our major galleries remain free entry.
Says Director Nicholas Cullinan, “We can’t wait to welcome you back after the biggest transformation since our building opened in 1896…enabling us to truly become a gallery of people, for people and more alive and lively, than ever before.”
Temporary exhibitions have always been a draw for NPG visitors. The opening displays include Yevonde: Life and Colour, exploring the life and career of 20th century British photographer Yevonde, a pioneer of colour photography in the 1950s (until 15th October), and Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eye of the Storm, showing Pauls’ personal photos of the Beatles in the few weeks between December 1963 to February 1964 as they were transitioning from local Liverpool band to global superstardom (until 1st October 2023).
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
London, WC2H 0HE
+44 (0)20 7306 0055
Admission free – book online
Open daily: 10.30 – 18.00
Friday & Saturday: 10.30 – 21.00
Funding for the project
The Gallery’s transformation was made possible by major grants from the Blavatnik Family Foundation and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, as well as major donations from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Ross Foundation, Mildred and Simon Palley, Julia and Hans Rausing, the David and Claudia Harding Foundation, Bjorn and Inger Saven, the Law Family Charitable Foundation, David and Molly Lowell Borthwick, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and Art Fund.