In August 2014, me and my buddy John Conway met up in London to tour the National Portrait Gallery. We had a fine time, talking about artwork, dinosaurs and the tribulations of married life as we walked through the halls containing 500+ years of Western portraiture. I took pictures of our favourite artworks, and here, you can see them too. I tried to provide details about the lives of the portraits' subjects as well.
There are many more paintings in the Gallery in addition to the ones I posted here. I strongly recommend anyone to visit the NPG if they happen the find themselves in London. Enjoy!
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, possibly by Hans Holbein the Younger, again from the early 1500s. Check out the weird perspective on that book on the table.
This enormous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, was really awe-inspiring. Elizabeth lived between 1533 and 1603, and her reign witnessed some of the most important events of British history.
A portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, by an unknown artist. Raleigh was an amazing man of adventure - his exploits included establishing a colony in North America (it ended in a spectacular, and mysterious disaster,) exploring the jungles of Guiana for the fabled-city of El-Dorado (twice,) fighting battles against the Spanish and popularising tobacco in Britain. He was also a talented poet.
A portrait of Sir Henry Unton, diplomat and statesman. Me and John really liked the allegorical composition of this picture, with the little figures acting out the details of Unton's life around his realistic portrait. Fantastic elements are also present; the moon grins behind a veil of clouds, an angel and Death dance around Unton's head. This mixture, of realism and allegory, reality and fantasy, was far ahead of its time - even modern artists can learn a thing or two from the unknown artist of this picture. John talked about drawing a prehistoric diorama this way. I wonder when he will come around to doing it - knowing John's amazing dinosaur art, I imagine it will be an impressive piece!
Another portrait of Elizabeth I, this time by an unknown Dutch artist.
The Dutch were the go-to people for art during the 1500s.
A portrait of John Astley, a member of Queen Elizabeth's court, by an unknown Dutch artist.
I liked the muted colours in this piece, the black-on-dark-green arrangement looks sublime.
A portrait of Catherine Parr, attributed to a certain "Master John." This painting exuded a strange charm - the lady was beautifully portrayed and the meticulous depiction of the textures seemed to run into the abstract, centuries before Klimt. John had used this piece as an inspiration for one of his works.
I saw these impressive bronze sculptures at the final section of the 16th-century gallery, and took photos of two of them. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph of their labels, so I cannot say much about them. Consulting the National Portrait Gallery website doesn't help either.
UPDATE: A dear friend has helped identify these as sculptures of Edward the Black Prince and Richard II. These were modern bronze replicas of older statues found around England.
This portrait of the agriculturalist Robert Bakewell, by the artist John Boultbee was one of the most interesting in the section, mostly because it was a portrait of an animal as well as that of a man. The horse was very finely rendered, but neither John nor I could understand why the artist had depicted it with such large eyes.
Robert Bakewell was a very important figure in his time. He was one of the first agriculturalists who selectively bred animals for certain uses. He was the first scientist who bred cattle for their meat, and also improved breeds of sheep and horses. Bakewell's experiments with animal husbandry even influenced Charles Darwin.
Another interesting piece from the 1700s-1800s era was this unfinished study by Pieter Christoffel Wonder. The artists of the era, it seems, painted the figures first and laid down the background later.
This portrait, by Joshua Reynolds, shows Maria Fitzherbert - a sensational beauty of her age, who illegally married George IV before he was made King. Their marriage was difficult because of Fitzherbert's Catholic religion (versus George IV's Anglican affiliation.)
The future king and Fitzherbert later divorced, and George IV claimed be "disgusted and horrified" of her. However, one wonders whether this hatred was genuine, or if George IV was forcibly accommodating himself to the restrictions imposed by royal tradition. According to Wikipedia, "...before dying, the King asked to be buried with Fitzherbert's eye miniature around his neck, which was done." What a tragic story.
Me and John then had lunch, rested for a while and continued our tour with paintings from the 1800s and the early 1900s.
Artworks acquire much more character and humanity in this period. This rather sickly portrait of Cardinal Manning is by George Frederic Watts - a fantastically talented symbolist painter. The Cardinal complained that this depiction made him look like a drunkard. Perhaps this was secretly intentional - Watts was deeply influenced by antique myths and was no admirer of conventional religion.
Another talented woman of the 19th century was Gwendolen Mary John, this is her self portrait.
Gwen was the sister of Augustus John, another talented impressionist painter.
This portrait of a young Richard Owen, by Henry William Pickersgill, is one of my favourites from the entire museum. Owen is an epic figure; he was a pioneer of palaeontology and vertebrate biology, coined the term "dinosaur," and established the Museum of Natural History in London.
In his personal life, however, Owen was a bit of a prick. He was incredibly jealous and arrogant, and would often go ahead to insult and smear his intellectual rivals. He was not above plagiarism either. Among other intellectual squabbles, he had a long-running debate with Charles Darwin and Darwin's supporter Thomas Huxley over the mechanisms of evolutionary theory.
This pickled nautilus (Nautilidae sp.) next to the young Owen was a dark and grotesque detail, like a surgically-removed parasite. In retrospect it seemed to hint at the twisted character growing inside the naive-looking young zoologist.
Of course, the most epic naturalist in the museum was Darwin. This classic portrait is by John Collier.
Another epic portrait, this time of a military figure. This is Lord Kitchener: hero of the Sudan, the Boer War, the First World War, and the iconic face on the "Join Your Country's Army" poster. One of Kitchener's most notable exploits was his victory against the Mahdi Rebellion in Sudan, after which he acquired the title, "Lord Kitchener of Khartoum." Thus, this picture has a backdrop of mosques and mud-brick spires of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan at the time. The artist is Sir Hubert von Herkomer.
Another painting from British wars, this time one closer to home. "The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari" shows Florence Nightingale, the celebrated founder of modern nursing and the heroine of the Crimean War, surrounded by wounded soldiers and curious onlookers. Scutari, (modern-day Üsküdar,) was a cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Istanbul on the city's Asian side, and centre of operations for Turkey's British allies at the time of the Crimean War. I grew up only a few kilometres away from the location of this scene. Florence Nightingale is still a celebrated figure in Turkey, and several private hospitals are named after her. None, however, have anything to do with the location of this painting.
We moved from the 19th to the 20th century. The greatest event at this threshold was doubtlessly the First World War, which left an indelible trace on everyone who lived through the period. This was one of the scariest pictures from wartime - innocuously titled "Some Statesmen of the Great War," by Sir James Guthrie. A familiar face is that of a younger Winston Churchill. The decisions of such "great men" sent millions to pointless deaths, and their poor strategies in partitioning the lands of Britain's defeated enemies led to a horrendous cycle of violence that, in some parts of the world, still reverberates today.
There were many wartime portraits in the gallery from the Great War. This study, of Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, was painted by Sir William Orpen, an extremely talented wartime artist.
Carton de Wiart was an extreme character, a vulpine war addict whose real-life exploits resemble those attributed to Chuck Norris in internet memes today. Death and murder were almost in his blood - he was possibly an illegitimate child of the genocidal Leopold II of Belgium. He fought in the Boer War and both World Wars. Throughout his adventures, de Wiart was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a POW camp; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. His hobbies included hunting wild boars, armed with nothing but a spear. When he was hospitalised in old age after a household accident, the doctors "extracted an incredible amount of shrapnel from his old wounds."
The best summary of de Wiart's character is possibly this quote; "We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose." He might strike us as violent and dangerous, but de Wiart was a product of his time. The success of Western powers, and the standards of life in their present-day societies was made possible partly through the actions of men like de Wiart.
Another nice example of the impressionist style is this self-portrait by Henry Lamb.
Lamb was also a successful war artist.
This self portrait is by Robert Bevan, an impressionistic painter who had a lovely style with raw colours. Bevan was inspired by French painters, and usually painted scenes from everyday life.
This portrait, by the little-known artist Leon Engers-Kennedy, was of Aleister Crowley, the infamous adventurer, depraved mystic and overall practitioner of weird magical rites. I think he is a much overrated figure, and was a bit of a spoilt brat in life. Crowley was also a seriously awful painter himself.
I told you before that some paintings in the gallery stopped me dead in my tracks with their beauty and charm. This self-portrait of the artist, writer and designer Doris Zinkeisen gave me that effect in an electrifying dose.
Doris Zinkeisen had a sister, Anna, who was also a talented artist. She was represented in the gallery with this self-portrait.
Glyn Philpot's portrait of Oswald Mosley. In the murky period just before the outbreak of World War, Mosley established the British Union of Fascists and sympathised with Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler was invited to his marriage ceremony. Both Mosley and his wife were imprisoned briefly during the Second World War. After the War Mosley continued his right-wing politics and campaigned for a unified, authoritarian European state.
|Royal portraits seem a bit cheesy in the modern era, but this magificient portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, by Pietro Annigoni was an exception. One really has to see this piece in real life, it is enormous and full of miniscule details.|
|One of my favourite modern artists, Lucian Freud, was also there with this nice self portrait. I love Freud not only for his intense paintings, but also for his rock'n roll lifestyle, in which he blazed a destructive trail through dozens of relationships and fathered numerous children, some illegitimately, never stopping to give a thought to anything other than his art and never giving in to the petty responsibilities imposed on him by friends, family, lovers and children. He was unbending and relentless. I really envy this type of dedication to creative activity.|
|The eccentric portrait of National Portrait Gallery benefactor Sir Christopher Ondaatje.|
|Portrait of the astrophysicist Martin Rees, by Benjamin Sullivan.|
|I really liked this portrait of the writer, poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen, by Lee Feather. Rosen is well-known for his children's' books and films, and the artist has fittingly portrayed him alongside his bright, life-like toys.|
At the time of our visit, the gallery was also hosting the 2014 BP Portrait Awards. A large section of the ground floor was dedicated to candidates for this year's prize. There were many nice portraits there, but a pugnacious museum warden (seen here towards the right, in the dark red tie,) stopped me from taking photos. A game of cat-and-mouse ensued between me and the warden, and I was only able to take snapshots of a few favourite pieces when his back was turned.
|"Princess Julia," portrait of a local DJ and style blogger, by the young artist Ben Ashton. This was my favourite candidate in the BP Portrait Awards section.|
|I also really liked this diptych of twin surfer kids, but the dastardly warden kept me from photographing its label.|