London and the National Portrait Gallery

I’ve started an art class recently, and been learning how to draw and paint – yes, there’s no beginning to my talents.

I’m particularly interested in portraiture as I’ve done a bit through my photography and I really enjoy it. Anyway, this has been a difficult week for Lady Hughes and myself and we were looking for a bit of a distraction, so I suggested a day trip to London to check out the National Portrait Gallery, partly so I could see how the pros do it, and partly because I know how to show a girl a good time – endless pictures of old, dead people.

So, yesterday, we jumped the pendalino to Euston and within a couple of hours we were there.

The National Portrait Gallery is at the back of the National Gallery, which is at the back of Trafalgar Square, so it was reasonably easy to find. One of the rules when you arrive is no photography, which is why I have no pictures of the pictures, sadly – though some people did ignore this rule and were taking pictures on their phones. Not sure how interesting a grainy mobile phone photo of a famous painting will be in the future but each to their own I suppose.

The first thing that strikes you about the Portrait Gallery is that there are a lot or portraits, and I mean, a lot! This may sound stupid, but you very quickly realise that there is a finite amount of portraits you can probably look at, and admire, before portrait fatigue quickly sets in.

The second thing to realise about the Portrait Gallery, is that it’s not necessarily the best place to go to learn about painting portraits. It’s more of a history lesson than an art lesson. Before the advent of photography, a portrait was more of a functional thing than an expression of artistic creativity. It’s not necessarily the painting, rather than who the painting is of, that is the focus. We joked that at times it was like looking at line of celebrity passport photos, which isn’t entirely fair, but you know what I mean – hopefully?

Even after photography was invented, portraits were seen as a status symbol for the elite. We saw various generals, politicians, kings, queens and other high-ranking individuals. It was as though once you’d made it to a suitably high level in the country you were then worthy of a portrait. The down-side to this is that you did feel at times as though you were walking through the establishment hall of fame.

I found the contemporary portraits more interesting as they were more creative and there was more variety in the different approaches.

On the whole it was a great trip, there are some beautiful works of art to see there and the historical context of the subjects is fascinating. After leaving we even had a little time to wander around Trafalgar Square, though half of it was fenced off for an upcoming event. When I was a kid, Trafalgar Square was all about the pigeons, but they’ve nearly all gone now and instead you’ve got various street performers dressed as Yoda, pretending to levitate – where’s their portrait eh?

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