Art gallerySights and activitiesNational Portrait Gallery

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The National Portrait Gallery is a fascinating museum, not so much because of the standard of the artwork on display (not all the pictures are that great) but primarily because the descriptive labels accompanying the artworks (and also the audio tours and the Portrait Explorer) give you a concise biography of the interesting lives led by the subjects of the portraits on display. It is a great way to learn about the characters that shaped British history.

The National Portrait Gallery features a large collection of portraits depicting prominent figures from British history.

When selecting works, the gallery gives priority to the significance of the subject rather than the artist and it includes caricatures, drawings and sculpture as well as paintings.

The museum’s permanent galleries focus on historical portraits and are complemented by a programme of temporary exhibitions of contemporary portraits.

The National Portrait Gallery is a fascinating museum, not so much because of the standard of the artwork on display (not all the pictures are that great) but primarily because the descriptive labels accompanying the artworks (and also the audio tours and the Portrait Explorer) give you a concise biography of the interesting lives led by the subjects of the portraits on display. It is a great way to learn about the characters that shaped British history.

What to see at the National Portrait Gallery

The museum’s primary collection features over 11,000 portraits

The gallery’s most famous portrait is the Chandos portrait, considered the most famous portrait of William Shakespeare. Other notable portraits include self-portraits by William Hogarth, Gwen John and Sir Joshua Reynolds an anamorphic portrait of Edward VI by William Scrots and a painting of Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë by their brother Patrick Branwell Brontë.

The gallery is organised chronologically starting at room one on the second floor. If you want to follow the gallery in this order you will need to start on the second floor and then work your way down to the ground floor.

Ground floor

The ground floor is usually used for temporary exhibitions that require an admission charge (but are free for National Portrait Gallery members).

First floor

The first floor of the gallery concentrates on portraits from the Victorian era to the 20th century.

It starts off with portraits of Queen Victoria and the Statesmen’s Gallery with portraits of eminent Victorians. Mostly Barons, Earls and Lords that you may not know of, but also some notable figures such as the architect Sir Charles Barry (known for the Palace of Westminster and Highclere Castle), Thomas Carlyle and Richard Cobden (who campaigned for free trade including the repeal of the Corn Laws and closer trade between Britain and France).

Room 23 has a focus on Expansion and Empire with portraits from the Victorian era relating to Britons who rose to prominence abroad. This room has several group portraits including the Secret of England’s Greatness, Florence Nightingale at Scutari and Queen Victoria visiting wounded soldiers. There are also portraits of Robert Baden-Powell and Mary Seacole.

Room 24 focuses on early Victorian arts with portraits of the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Jenny Lind (the Swedish opera singer who toured the United States with PT Barnum, eventually settling in England).

Room 25 focuses on Victorian politics with full-length portraits of William Ewart Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli and Arthur James Balfour. This room also features some caricatures including a group caricature portrait of the Lobby of the House of Commons.

Room 26 is dedicated to portraits painted by George Frederick Watts and include a self portrait as well as paintings of Ellen Terry (his first wife), Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron (Lord Tennyson’s neighbour and a pioneering 19th century photographer, noted for her portraits of Victorian-era celebrities), Matthew Arnold (a poet and cultural critic) and newspaper owner and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards.

Room 27 is focused on the leading figures of science and technology from the Victorian period including Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Robert Stephenson, Michael Faraday, chemist Thomas Graham, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Bradshaw (one of the earliest travel guide publishers).

Room 28 focuses on later Victorian arts with portraits that include Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (who comprise the Gilbert and Sullivan theatre production duo), Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, William Holman Hunt (an English painter and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), Gwen John (the Welsh artist who was Auguste Rodin’s lover) and Alfred Waterhouse (an architect noted for the Victorian Gothic Revival architectural style who designed Manchester Town Hall, the Natural History Museum and the National Liberal Club in London, incidentally his brother Edwin was a successful accountant whose firm went on to become PriceWaterhouseCoopers).

Second floor

The National Portrait Gallery’s second floor features portraits dating from the Tudor period up to the early 19th century.

Room one has portraits from the early Tudor period including portraits of Tudor kings including Henry VIII and his wives Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr.

Room two has portraits from the Elizabethan era including portraits of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Room four focuses on the early Stuart period.

Room five focuses on the reign of Charles I and the English Civil War. This room includes paintings of the two main figures of this period: King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Other paintings from this era include a portrait of Charles II as a child.

Room six features portraits of leading figures in 17th century science and art and includes paintings of poet John Milton, John Evelyn (from whose diaries we are able to learn about the events of the 17th century in greater detail including the English Civil War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London), Thomas Hobbes (the philosopher who established the social contract theory of political philosophy), John Bunyan, John Ray (a naturist whose classification of plants was the forerunner to modern taxonomy), Robert Boyle (regarded as the first modern chemist) and William Dampier (who circumnavigated the world three times and was the first Englishman to explore parts of Australia).

Room seven is focused on Charles II and the restoration of the monarchy. The room is dominated by a full-length portrait of King Charles II and also includes portraits of his wife Catherine of Braganza and Samuel Pepys (who is best known for his diary, which along with John Evelyn’s diaries, give historians a detailed account of the major events in the late 17th century including the restoration of the monarchy, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London).

Room eight features portraits pertaining to the later Stuarts, which essentially is the period from 1685 to 1714. Portraits from this era include James II who ruled for three years before William III (William of Orange) and his wife Mary II took the throne (at a time when the monarchy’s power was limited by the 1689 Declaration of Rights which formed the basis for the monarch’s modern role in government) as well as Queen Anne who oversaw the 1707 Act of Union uniting the Scottish and English parliaments. In addition to portraits of James II, William III, Mary II and Queen Anne, room eight also includes paintings of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke.

Room nine features a series of portraits painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller of members of the influential Kit-Cat Club.

As a side note, the Kit Kat chocolate bar was named after the Kit-cat portraits (the club’s low ceilings meant that the edges had to be snapped off a standard size portrait to fit in the space, although the later portraits you can see at the gallery were painted to a specific size) which were named after the Kit-Cat Club, which was named after the Kit Cat mutton pie, sold in the tavern where the club originally met which was named after the innkeeper Christopher Catt whose name was shortened to Kit Cat.

Room 10 is dedicated to portraits of prominent figures in the world of early 18th-century art and literature. It includes paintings of Sir Christopher Wren, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Sir James Thornhill (who painted the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich), Sir John Fielding (the blind magistrate and social reformer who helped establish London’s first professional police force) and self-portraits of Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini and William Hogarth.

Room 11 has portraits relating to royalty and religion in the early 18th century. In addition to photos of archbishops and royalty of the time, this room includes portraits of Flora MacDonald and John Wesley.

Room 12 has paintings of people prominent in the arts in the late 18th century. This room has paintings of George Frideric Handel, Thomas Gainsborough, Capability Brown and Samuel Johnson.

Room 13 has a focus on portraits of leading figures in 18th century science and industry and includes paintings of Sir Hans Sloane (the Irish physician and collector who provided the foundation of the British Museum), Scottish inventor James Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton (whose Boulton & Watt steam engines were instrumental in the advance of the Industrial Revolution), Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s dad), Sir Joseph Banks, John Smeaton (known as the father of civil engineering), John Wilkinson (who pioneered the manufacture of cast iron) and Edmond Halley (the astronomer for whom Halley’s Comet is named).

The portraits in room 14 show the people who were instrumental in Britain’s rise as a world power. These include Robert Clive (also known as Clive of India), George III, James Cook, John Wilkes, Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis and George Washington.

Rooms three and 16 are reserved for temporary exhibitions. Temporary exhibits on the second floor are usually free.

Room 17 has an emphasis on portraits of celebrities and royalty of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and includes paintings of King William IV, King George IV, Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

Room 18 has a focus on portraits of important figures from the Regency period including composer and astronomer Sir William Herschel, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, Joseph Mallord William Turner, John Constable and Edward Jenner (pioneer of the smallpox vaccine).

Room 19 focuses on portraits of the people who were instrumental in Britain’s rise as the world’s richest nation and includes paintings of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (the engineer responsible for the Thames Tunnel and father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) and railway pioneer George Stephenson.

The focus of room 20 is a selection of portraits of political figures from the 19th century including paintings that highlight individuals responsible for advances in democracy and liberty such as anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and those instrumental in the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act.

Visiting the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is located immediately north of the National Gallery and it is a three-minute walk from both Charing Cross and Leicester Square tube stations.

The Portrait Explorer is a touchscreen device that can be found at various spots within the gallery that gives you in-depth information about various portraits in the gallery. With it, you can use timelines to explore historical periods, find out who is in a group portrait, watch video interviews and see the magnified detail of portraits.

You can also use the Portrait Explorer to print out a ready-made tour consisting of 12 portraits that have a focus on a specific theme or time period.

For a £3 charge, you can also use a multimedia guide that includes five themed audio tours of the gallery. Themes include highlights of the collection, celebrities, royalty, science and discovery and writers. Audio tours are available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

A cheaper option is to download the National Portrait Gallery tour iOS app from the App Store to use on your iPhone. This is around half the price of renting the multimedia guide and you can keep it on your phone for future visits to the gallery. There is also a British Sign Language version of the app that is a free download.

Most people spend 2–3 hours visiting the National Portrait Gallery and people with an interest in British history often make several trips to the gallery each time focusing on a specific period or theme from Britain’s history.

Amenities
  • Wheelchair access
  • Audio tour (paid)
  • Cafe/restaurant
  • Bar
  • Gift shop
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