In order to develop my own skills as an art student and to think about my own creative future, it is important to me to take in as much diverse creativity as possible. During a trip to London in January 2020, before the outbreak of Covid-19, I had the pleasure of visiting the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery which is found just off Trafalgar Square in the bustling heart of London.
The National Portrait Gallery stands in all its grandeur with the busts of the three men responsible for its existence under the reign of Queen Victoria, echoing the importance of the arts during the mid 1800’s, a while before photography was invented during the late 1800’s. As I walked into the building through its grand entrance, I was struck by the history surrounding me. The ornate architecture, the kings, queens and privileged class of days gone by staring at me with eyes that follow you around the room, almost whispering secrets about the changes they have seen over the centuries. I am particularly interested in the literature of this era and often reach for the classics to absorb the sense of gentility, yet the cruel intention of the class system during this time. To see this first hand, these intricate slices of history, was completely breath taking. These paintings, some larger than life adorn the walls, set in grand frames and curated in such a way that the viewer takes a journey in time, a walk through history.
The costumes, the drama of the paint upon canvas and the proud master with his hound, the children in their Sunday best with bored faces from pausing for the artist. One thing that struck me about most of the portraits is that people of this time appear much smaller, with pinched faces and small, delicate features, so far removed from the people we are today. This could be an evolutionary development, a nutritional factor or even the mixing of races and cultures over the centuries that give us more of an individuality in the present. Even the curation of the pieces in this section were tightly structured together giving it a historical, almost museum like quality.
Each cavernous room intertwining with the next, moving through history and taking the viewer on a visual feast from the ridiculous to the spectacular. The portrait of Polish performer Joseph Boruwlaski by Reinagle (1749-1833). Boruwlaski was born with achondroplasia, a cause of dwarfism and stood at a mere 3ft 3” tall. The portrait is strategically positioned next to Marshall’s (1767-1835) painting of the fattest man during the early 19th century, Daniel Lambert. This era’s fascination with the spectacular led to Lambert becoming a celebrity, making monetary gain from others curiosity, and at 52 stone was the heaviest person on record until the 20th century. I loved how the portraits complimented each other and could imagine the crowds they would pull in their day
The further into the gallery you go, the more modern the work around you becomes, the surroundings take on a more up to date feel and this is echoed in the curation of the pieces in the first extension built in 1933 right through to the modern lighting and spacious contemporary design of the second extension built in 2000. Contemporary portraits from the 1930’s onwards adorn the walls of the second extension and I was particularly drawn to the self portrait of L.S lowry (The man with the red eyes 1938). For a portrait it was quite small in its relatively plain gold frame, non remarkable in comparison with some of the more ornate pieces such as the Anna Neagle portrait by McClelland Barclay (1940), or even the Beatrix Potter by Delmar Banner (1938). But even in its plain frame and curated within the surround of grand statuesque ladies I found it a real stand out piece. Very unlike a usual Lowry painting depicting workers outside of factories, Lowry had turned his attention onto himself, the red rimmed eyes being the focus of the piece. I learned that the artist painted this during the time that his mother was dying and that he was 51 at the time and I could feel the tension set in the frown lines and the lack of sleep and possibly unshed tears in the redness of the eyes.
The modern contemporary feel of the second extension was echoed in the modern contemporary paintings and sculptures that adorned it. I could see how artists were starting to embrace other mediums such as the stained glass piece by Pauline Boty (1958). The artist creates a real contemporary pop art piece with a fusion of an almost renaissance ethereal image captured upon the glass. Lit from behind to cast a daylight glow as one would find in a church or cathedral, I loved how this piece had been curated and it was so modern yet so intrinsic of the past.
This modern feel carried on with a pop art portrait of Dame Zaha Hadid upon a wall mounted LED box By Michael Craig-Martin (2008) with the colours controlled by computer software, making the piece continually changing with the colours selected at random by the computer. This nod to the modern age reflected in its surroundings and showing us the infinite possibilities one can use to create a piece of art.
I loved how at one side of me I had Hockney’s ‘Self portrait with Charlie’ (2005) and when I turned around, to the other side of me was a large and very impressive portrait of Sir Harry Djanogly and Lady Carol Ann Djanogly by Wim Heldens (2017), both oil on canvas and both creating the portrait off to the side and bringing the surround into view giving the observer not just the portrait, but a narrative of a situation. A far cry from the portraits seen at the beginning of my exploration around the gallery and good insight into the journey of art upto present day, another nod to the clever curation throughout the building. Amidst the paintings was a sculptural piece by the artist Tracy Emin, a bronze death mask (2002) depicting her own face, a nod to the autobiographical nature of her work, representing herself as a museum piece and offering herself up for the scrutiny of generations to come.
The last portrait to catch my eye after hours of immersing myself completely into this historical artistic journey was a modern portrait of the musician Ed Sheeran by Colin Davidson (2016) Oil on Linen. The colours on the fabric and the representation of skin tone was amazing. The portrait was large and imposing with Sheeran’s face appearing pensive and introspective, a contrast to the performer seen in the public eye. Below are other pictures I took from the day throughout the gallery.
Other images from around the gallery.
A progression of my own portraiture work over the last 3 years.
I have always aspired to be a great portrait artist, and I still do! I hold painters in such high esteem who manage to capture the light and realistic quality of character. This is an area of weakness for me, but it is also something I constantly work on to try and improve my own creative practice. I love to experiment with textures, text and colour and have added collage and even experimented digitally throughout the degree course. My interests at present are the fusion of poetry and image and I am currently working on a family portrait made entirely from collaged poetry which I have written myself.