Saturday, 28 July 2007

National Portrait Gallery

Today I visited the National Portrait Gallery as one of my independent site visits. I chose this museum, not only because of my personal interest in British history, but because I was excited to see the portraits of my two paper subjects: Jane Austen and John Keats. Actually, to be completely honest I was not aware that Cassandra's portrait of Jane Austen was in the National Portrait Gallery's collections. I knew that it was the only portrait painted of her from life, and it never occurred to me that it might be on display in this national museum. Instead, I had come to the National Portrait Gallery to see an image of John Keats and the other historical and literary figures who had fascinated me for most of my life.

The museum was founded by the British government during the reign of Queen Victoria, and its policy is to admit works according to historical, rather than artistic, merit. I found this to be a particularly fascinating policy, especially for a museum filled to capacity with works of art. Upon further reflection, though, it's a policy that makes sense. If the museum determined to purchase or accept donations of only artistically important portraits, many of the featured portraits would never have been acquired. A good example is my favorite find, Cassandra's portrait of her sister Jane Austen. The portrait is amateurish at best, even family members admitted it was not a good likeness, and any museum purchasing artistically important works would have been forced to pass it over. However, the portrait is the only one painted of Jane Austen from life, and her importance to British literature and history is undeniable. The peculiar acquisition policy of the National Portrait Gallery ensures that small treasures such as these are not lost. Another interesting point in the acquisition policy was changed during the 1960's. Before that time, no portrait of a living sitter was admitted to the collection, excepting British monarchs. This policy has now been changed, and portraits of famous Brits such as J.K. Rowling and David Beckham are displayed along with Queen Elizabeth II.

Upon arriving at the museum, I followed the natural flow up the escalator to the Tudor room. This room not only introduced me to the museum's collections, but also to the way the collection is organized. The portraits are hung primarily by historical time period, and within that time frame by type of sitter. Visitors are led to the Tudors, where most of the paintings are of royalty and nobility. The high points of this room were portraits of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and further on, Shakespeare himself. The visitor is then led through conveniently numbered rooms which provide a fascinating tour through the history of England. Many of the portraits are of recognizable names and faces, but a great many were of people I didn't have previous knowledge of. Each portrait is accompanied by a small plaque listing not only the name of the artist and sitter, but also a short history of the sitter's importance to the nation. The nature of the displays, and the museum as a whole, made for a very interesting visit. It is possible, with very little effort, to learn a great deal about the history of Britain.

By far my favorite room in the National Portrait Gallery was the Romantics. This room immediately struck me as a gold mine, because when I entered I saw the recognizable faces of Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. I was very excited to examine the portraits in the room, and my happy mood was cemented when I happened across what, to me, was an unimaginable treasure: Jane Austen's portrait. It is very small and unassuming, but had a remarkable effect on me. I was thrilled to be able to look upon the portrait of a favorite author, especially as it had been drawn by her most beloved sister. By a strange, serendipitous circumstance, John Keats' portrait had been hung directly behind Jane Austen's, so I was able to view both of my paper subjects in one spot!

In short, I found my visit to the National Portrait Gallery to be both informative and very entertaining. Apart from the portraits of my subject authors, I was able to see the portraits of many other favorite writers and historical figures. My favorites included Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, William Blake, and, interestingly, George Washington. I was also able to make a passing acquaintance with new and interesting people about whom I hadn't known much. For instance, I was drawn to a portrait of a fresh-faced, flirtatious young woman who turned out to be Nell Gwynn, an actress and the mistress of King Charles II. I think that this demonstrates the particular effectiveness of the gallery. Visitors are encouraged, and would be hard-pressed to resist the urge, to wander the gallery, stopping at interesting and familiar faces. The portraits make it easier to connect to these important people, and therefore make it much easier to connect to history and heritage.