If you didn’t know the National Portrait Gallery was right behind The National Gallery at Trafalgar Square in London, you might walk right past it. It’s actually in the same building and looks like an annex to the much larger art museum, but is completely separate.
I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery recently and was really very impressed.
The National Portrait Gallery is set up chronologically, as one would expect, which in this case creates a fun and interesting way to learn about British history beginning with the early Tutors and the Elizabethan era. There are the iconic portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) from her youth onward. The one above is named the Darnley Portrait after its previous owner. It is considered very representative of the queen and the pattern for her face was used for coins and other items for the remainder of her reign.
While the gallery is free, I highly recommend spending a few pounds on the audio device. I was impressed by the wide selection it provided commentary for and the depth of information in the narration. You could literally cover much of England’s history in a few hours by listening to the recordings, especially on the 2nd floor where portraits hang of monarchs and well-known English politicians, artists and scientists.
Two artists with self-portraits hanging in the National Portrait Gallery are Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and William Hogarth (1697-1764).
This is Van Dyck’s last self-portrait and shows him raising his right arm in the process of painting. Van Dyck was a Flemish-Baroque painter of the Antwerp school who moved to London at the invitation of King Charles I in 1632 and became a celebrated portraitist to the royal family and court.
The oil on canvas self-portrait of William Hogarth (1751) is very much in line with the artist’s career as a pictorial satirist and social critic. An x-ray of the picture shows that it originally contained an image of his dog relieving himself against a pile of old masters paintings!
One the ground floor of the National Portrait Gallery there are contemporary portraits that include these acrylic on canvas pictures of Princess Diana and Prince Charles by Bryon Organ at the time of their engagement. Princess Diana is sitting in the Yellow Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace, according to the information panel.
I am shown standing in front of Diana’s picture because of how her life and death touched me. I am three weeks older than Diana. As a young woman in America, I was very taken by the story of her engagement to Prince Charles. I watched their fairy-tale marriage ceremony on television, followed her life in particular as she gave birth to her sons and matured into a woman in her own right. I was greatly saddened by the breakup of her marriage – horrified by her apparent and very public emotional breakdown – and then destroyed by her sudden and senseless death. I cried for days when she died!
She was only 36 when she died. She would be 53 years of as of this writing, the same age I am now. When I watched Prince William’s marriage to Kate, I thought of her missing it. When I watched as Prince George was introduced to the world, I thought of her and what that day would have been like for the new grandmother!
This is not to say that I am bonkers about the royals, but I do identify with Diana given that we have our birthdays in common. I have enjoyed the experience of raising my own children, and I know that I appreciate these moments in life a bit more because of what I realize Diana has missed out on.