Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography – National Portrait Gallery

Victorian Giants exhibition

I went to an exhibition of Victorian photography at the National Portrait Gallery, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography. The exhibition featured four photographers: Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden and Lewis Carroll. These four were pioneers in the world of photography in the 1960s, sharing ideas and inspiration and creating a body of work that still looks radical decades on.

I have some familiarity with the work of Cameron and Carroll, but I was previously unaware of Hawarden and Rejlander. I particularly liked Hawarden’s portrait of a woman by a mirror, in which we see both the woman and her reflection. I also enjoyed Rejlander’s composite photograph of decadent nudes, which resembled a dramatic painting.

There was lots to enjoy in the exhibition, from candid photographs of children (I loved the grumpy child photographed by Carroll) to portraits of important figures of the age and unknown sitters dressed up as mythological figures.

The National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery

On the same day I visited the Supreme Court, I decided to pop into the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve been there a few times in the past, but it’s been a while since I’ve gone through it thoroughly.

The NPG was founded in 1856 and was the first portrait gallery in the world. It moved to its current site in 1896. As the name suggests, it contains portraits of the great and the good from the late medieval period onwards – the pictures have been chosen for the significance of the sitter, not the artist. It’s interesting to see how this changes over time: in the sixteenth century it’s mainly monarchs, with the odd courtier; later on the litany includes scientists, artists and poets, and the modern day portraits include celebrities: singers, actors and sports people.

The Gallery is arranged chronologically from the top to the bottom, so I headed to the top floor via the escalator. The first things you see are casts from the tombs of medieval kings, this from a time before portraits were common. From then it’s straight into the Tudor era, starting with a few Tudor-era portraits of medieval kings. I still remember the first time I saw this part of the Gallery: I was fresh from studying the Tudors at A Level, and it was amazing to see the paintings I’d only ever seen in textbooks in the flesh. Queen Elizabeth has a strong presence but there are also famous pictures of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Paintings dating from the Jacobean period onwards cover monarchs as well as famous scientists, writers and artists, including the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare and one of my favourites – a dramatic painting of poet John Donne. I naturally gravitate towards the writers – I love the picture of Lord Byron towards the end of these galleries.

Statue of Victoria and Albert
Statue of Victoria and Albert

Works from the Victorian era can be found on the floor below; these are very, well, Victorian. There is a room for politicians and a corridor for famous public faces, plus many representations of Queen Victoria herself. My favourite room here is the writers’ room, which contains Branwell Brontë’s painting of his three famous sisters, as well as a picture of another of my favourite authors, Thomas Hardy. Another of my favourites is the dashing portrait of a young Lord Tennyson.

The early twentieth-century gallery has recently been refurbished, and it was good to see it looking refreshed. In general this isn’t my favourite artistic period, but there are some interesting portraits here of the likes of Virginia Woolf, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Winston Churchill.

The Gallery hosts regular special exhibitions (for which a charge is made) and offers late-night opening on Thursdays and Fridays. It’s smaller and a bit less daunting than the nearby National Gallery, but it’s well worth a visit.


Address: St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE


Opening Hours: Daily 10am-6pm, open until 9pm Thurs & Fri

Price: Free (charge for special exhibitions)

Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky – National Portrait Gallery

I’m hugely interested in Russian culture, and so the National Portrait Gallery‘s exhibition Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky was an absolute must-see for me. The exhibition features pictures loaned from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, paintings of some of the greatest cultural figures Russia has produced, including writers, artists, actors, composers and patrons. It’s also possible to trace the development of Russian art through the exhibition, as it covers the period 1867 to 1914, and features Realism, Impressionism and Cubism.

This relatively small exhibition had several highlights for me. Ilya Repin’s portrait of composer Modest Mussorgsky, painted in 1881 just a few days before Mussorgsky died of alcoholism, is powerfully unnerving. The picture Tolstoy shows the great writer relaxing at his home, while the portrait of Turgenev is urbane and smart. The 1872 portrait of Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov is familiar to me from the cover of the author’s works, and portrays the author as pensive and gaunt. I think my favourite, however, was the 1898 portrait of Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz. Intellectual and intelligent, the writer stares out of the painting as if challenging the viewer. I kept returning to this picture as I was going round the exhibition. The show was small in size, but contained more cultural giants than any other I’ve seen.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon – National Portrait Gallery


I visited the National Portrait Gallery at the weekend to see the exhibition Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon. It covered the life of the actress and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) from her early years training for the ballet through her film career and ending with her humanitarian work.

The exhibition was interesting and comprised images by photographers such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Terry O’Neill, Norman Parkinson and Irving Penn. The pictures conveyed Hepburn’s beauty, charm and style over several decades. I was surprised, however, that it was so small – there were only a couple of rooms and it didn’t take me long to go through it.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery

I visited the Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday after work, suddenly realising that it was due to close on the Bank Holiday. I’m very glad I got the chance to see the exhibition, as I love Sargent’s style and his pictures really appeal to me.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was born in Florence to American parents. He showed early promise as an artist and trained with many expatriate artists. He later studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and his career went from strength to strength; he was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic.

The portraits here are largely of artists and other society figures that Sargent knew personally, meaning that they are more varied and generally more informal than his commissioned works. I loved the glorious colours of the paintings and the interesting figures who form their subjects. One of my favourites was a picture of his friend Ramón Subercaseaux, painted in a Venetian gondola in around 1880. Ramon looks directly at the painting as if he is looking into the eyes of his friend. I also loved the paintings of Robert Louis Stevenson, completed a few years later, showing the author in an almost “accidental” pose. Another image I loved, much more formal and staged, was Sargent’s painting of actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth – incredibly impressive.

I could have stayed here for hours; sadly the exhibition has finished but many of Sargent’s works are visible in public galleries, including Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate) and his 1913 portrait of the novelist Henry James (National Portrait Gallery).

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889


Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy – National Portrait Gallery

I went to see Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy at the National Portrait Gallery last Friday after work. This exhibition aims to explore the life and ideas of Morris, who was an artist, writer, socialist and visionary thinker.

The exhibition was interesting, but I thought it focused too little on Morris himself and too much on his contemporaries and those whom he inspired. Books, ceramics and artworks by people such as Eric Gill, Terence Conran and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were interesting in their own right but moved the focus away from Morris. I did like how the exhibition highlighted Morris’ concept of “art for the people” and his Socialist sympathies.

Overall, a good exhibition to visit if you want an overview of William Morris’s life, contemporaries and followers, but not if you are particularly interested in Morris himself.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision – National Portrait Gallery

I took advantage of the National Portrait Gallery‘s late opening on Fridays to visit the Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision exhibition. The exhibition, which runs until 26 October, looks at the acclaimed 20th century writer’s life and work through the mediums of photography, painting, illustration and archival material.

The exhibition begins with a display of Woolf’s diaries, rescued from her bombed-out house. They are shown alongside images of Woolf in the house at Tavistock Square before it was destroyed in the Blitz. There are several pictures of family members, many of them photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, and many images of eminent men of art and letters who were family friends when Virginia was young.

Other pictures show the writer in the early days of her marriage to Leonard Woolf, as well as the other members of the Bloomsbury Group, including the artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell. The exhibition also explores the founding of the Hogarth Press in Hogarth House, Richmond, and Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West, as well as her suicide in 1941.

This is an interesting exhibition that explores not just the life of Virginia Woolf but the life of those around her, whether family, friends or other significant figures. A definite must-see for fans of her work.

Creative Connections: Ealing – National Portrait Gallery

I was surprised and intrigued to find a display about my own borough of Ealing at the National Portrait Gallery. Creative Connections is a series that looks at some of the well-known creative people with connections to a particular borough, as well as working with young people to explore creativity. This particular project based in Ealing partners Brentside High School, whose students have created a film installation with artist Eelyn Lee called An Ealing Trilogy.

Ealing has a rich history, growing in popularity since the extension of the Great Western Railway in the mid-1800s and the creation of Ealing Broadway station. Today it is home to people from all over the world, and its history encompasses Ealing Studios, the Ealing Music Club, and Ealing Art College (now part of the University of West London).

The exhibition has some great pictures of local landmarks including Pitzhanger Manor and Ealing Studios, as well as images of the students involved with the project. Famous figures with some connection to Ealing are pictured, with descriptions of their life and work. I knew about some of these people already: the architect Sir John Soane, who bought Pitzhanger Manor in 1801, and Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, famed as the first computer programmer, who taught at the Ealing Grove Industrial School for underprivileged children which had been founded by Lady Byron.

Others, however, were new to me. Ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn was brought up in Ealing, while director Steve McQueen grew up near Ealing Studios. Inventors Trevor Baylis and Sir William Henry Perkin had Ealing connections: the latter (who invented the first synthetic dye, mauveine) opened a chemical factory in the area. Singer Dusty Springfield and actor Sid James also spent part of their childhoods in Ealing, while Pete Townshend went to Ealing Art School and The Who played Ealing Club, as did Freddie Mercury.

If you have any connection to the borough of Ealing, this is definitely worth a visit.

Bailey’s Stardust – National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is currently exhibiting work by photographer David Bailey, and I headed down after work last Friday to check it out. Stardust brings together work from his entire career, which has lasted for several decades.

Bailey is famous for his celebrity portraits, and there are plenty of those here, including images of Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Mick Jagger and more. Most are black and white pictures, taken against a plain white background. Interestingly, I thought, this style of photography makes the images look timeless. Only the ages of the recognisable subjects, and occasionally the clothes they were wearing, gave any indication that they were not taken recently.

Celebrities are not Bailey’s only subjects, however. He has taken photos in East Africa, Papua New Guinea and Australia among other places. Many of these photos are portraits against plain backgrounds, some in black and white. There is a democracy to his images, I think, in that by taking photos of celebrities and of indigenous peoples Bailey is showing how they are all the same.

Overall, an interesting exhibition – worth a visit before it closes on 1 June.

The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery

2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, and many museums and galleries are marking the occasion with events and exhibitions. The National Portrait Gallery has kicked things off with a display called The Great War in Portraits. I decided to visit one weekday afternoon, when I had some time off work: I thought, as the exhibition was free, it would be best to go during an off-peak time. I think I made the right decision: the exhibition was pretty crowded as it was, and there was a sign up warning of further crowding at peak times.

The exhibition shows widely different images of the people involved in the war, evoking their varied experiences and roles. It makes use of different mediums, including paintings, film, drawings and photographs. There is even a sculpture: the Prologue displays Jacob Epstein’s ‘The Rock Drill‘, a robotic-looking figure representing humanity’s fascination with mechanisation. This was originally created in 1913, the year before modern warfare would cause such devastation. However, the version shown here is the 1916 version, which Epstein created in response to the war. Gone is the celebration of automation, machines and the power of technology. Instead, the sculpture has had the drill removed and three limbs severed, reflecting the horror and destruction of war.

The exhibition is divided into a number of sections. Royalty and the Assassin contrasts formal, old-fashioned portraits of heads of state before the war with an image of Gavrilo Princip, the teenage assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Paintings of British, German, Russian and Austrian-Hungarian leaders evoke imperial grandeur and arrogance, while to a lesser extent photos of the President of the French Republic are designed to represent power. However, the picture of Princip is subdued and understated. Together, these images reflect the world before World War I and the political and social climate in which it began.

After war was declared, military leaders began to take on more power, and Leaders and Followers illustrates the hierarchical order, with traditional, formal images of commanding officers who often wore medals. Ordinary soldiers are also represented in more informal poses, often in groups and in a markedly down-to-earth manner. Both kinds of images were often shared as postcards.

By 1916, it was clear that the war would not be ‘over by Christmas’ and the horrific consequences were becoming apparent to many, even as those in power fought to maintain the illusion of jingoistic patriotism. The pictures in The Valiant and the Damned vary wildly in tone, with images of decorated soldiers, poets like Wilfred Owen, the infamous Mata Hari, killed or injured officers, and soldiers from all corners of the globe. For me, the most moving and striking images were the sketches made by Henry Tonks of facially disfigured servicemen. Reconstructive surgery made great strides during the war, and some wonderful achievements were made, but even so the experiences of these soldiers must have been dreadful: Tonks’ images help to give them back dignity and a sense of identity.

And then, something completely different – Fact and Fiction: The Battle of the Somme in film contrasts films by the British and German propaganda bureaus concerning the Battle of the Somme. These films were designed to evoke the ‘thrill of battle’, showing soldiers working and living together, and actually displaying images of dead and wounded soldiers. The first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, resulted in horrific losses including 19,240 British soldiers. Nevertheless, the film made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, The Battle of the Somme, was a huge popular success, reaching an estimated 20 million people. It was truthful up to a point, but did not convey the full horrors of the battle. The German film, on the other hand, released in January 1917, enjoyed less success, partly because it used inaccurate footage and enacted scenes.

After the war, Britain and Germany largely headed in contrasting directions as far as art was concerned. In Britain, the trauma of the carnage led to a return to the comforting and familiar past, while in Germany there was a reaction against the old order and Expressionism gained ground. Tradition and the Avant-garde shows pictures from both of these widely different concepts, and how different artists reacted to the war.

This is a small but very well-presented exhibition that thoughtfully compares and contrasts different responses to the war in terms of portraits. It’s certainly worth a visit, particularly as entry is free. The exhibition runs until 15 June 2014.