Sunday 29 December 2013

December at the National Portrait Gallery

Apologies for my absence from this blog, but as I'm sure you're all finding, the festive season can be a bit of a busy one! Anyway, better late than never...

The National Portrait Gallery has to be up there as one of my favourites of all the London galleries. I think it’s because in life, and in art, I’m most fascinated with people, and their stories, and this is exactly what NPG is all about. There are always interesting exhibitions on display, and a wonderful permanent collection, but this month was a particularly good time to go.

Until 5th January, The National Portrait Gallery will be displaying “Elizabeth I & Her People”, an exhibition, unsurprisingly, about the life of the Tudors in Queen Elizabeth’s court. For me, it was the perfect size; relatively small in terms of ground covered, but packed full of exciting paintings and artifacts. Right in the entrance, before you’re introduced to any individuals, were a few landscape paintings, showing tudor life both in court and rurally, and the most incredible map. Engraved by Jodocus Hondius, we could have spent hours finding towns, working out the old English names, and it was also incredible to see how he had hand-painted the map, the splodges and mistakes making it even more human. The most fascinating thing about the map, however, was the royal family tree in the top right hand corner. Intricate branches laid out all of the monarchs and their heirs since William Conqueror to Elizabeth herself. Truly amazing, but sadly, I haven’t been able to find it online.

I particularly liked the first room of the exhibition because it was dedicated the professors, writers and artists. There were portraits of figures like Esther Inglis the calligrapher (a profession which I didn’t think a woman could hold in those days) and a self-portrait by painter George Gower which depicts a pair of scales behind him to represent how his position as an artist outweighs his heritage. There was also a interesting portrait of a group of gentlemen in an anatomy class, the man on the slab being the only one with a smile of his face…

Although mainly portraits, the exhibition also included statues, garments, weapons, and jewellery, which dotted every room. Magnifying glasses were on hand so you could really get up close and personal with all the pieces. I loved the rings in the second room, which gleamed from behind the glass. They were decorated with such fine details, many of which looked quite contemporary. If only they’d sold replicas in the shop. Sigh.

You really can learn so much from a Tudor portrait. Traditionally, the artist would have included the names, titles and age of the sitter right onto the canvas. This usually means that the only piece of information that could possibly be unknown would be the artist's name, which unfortunately was the case for a lot of the portraits in the exhibition. One in particular stood out to me, which was of three unknown children from 1580. As the name suggests, the names and titles were of course not present, but the ages (“ÆTATIS SVÆ” seven, six and five) were there, right above each child. I think I loved it not just because of the skill and style of the artist, but how he managed to capture that wonderful stubborn glare in all of them (a look I am very accustomed with). I also had quite a soft spot for their pet guinea pig.

In the same room were a pair of breathtaking portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, painted by Hans Eworth in 1563. We did wonder whether at one point these had been one painting, or if the half coat of arms in each was intentional. Either way, they were stunning, only enhanced by the elaborate frames (the Duke’s was decorated with inlayed velvet panels).

There was one person missing so far from the exhibition and that Liz herself, but entering the last room, the walls hang with some of the best portraits you will ever see of her: The Ermine Portrait, the Cambridge portrait, and also some interesting ones, including a beautiful sketch by Federico Zuccaro and a print by Remigius Hogerberg. I’ve read some reviews that have criticized the exhibition for purely focusing solely on the hierarchy and aristocrats. Although I agree that the portraits included were rather one sided, that didn’t stop me from enjoying it.

From a relaxed waltz around the Tudor court to a treasure-map adventure, hunting down portraits that were dotted about the gallery. For the past month and a half, we’ve been watching Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2013. I’ve loved the program, and watching the artists progress each week, and feeling so inspired, I’ve even signed up for a portraiture course next month.

The four portraits by each of the four finalists were on display, and it was such a thrill to see them in the flesh, having witnessed the painting process of each. My favourite from the series had to be Luis Morris' portrait of ballet dancer Lauren Cuthbertson. The palette, the composition and the moment captured were all stunning. I also loved the winner, Nick Lord's portrait of Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry.

Of course, the National Portrait Gallery doesn't only have paintings on display. Until July in a Room 33, a collection of photographs of actress Vivien Leigh will me hanging, to mark the centenary of her birth. There are gorgeous shots from photographers like Sasha and Angus McBean, as well as film stills, theatre programs, magazines and promotional movie stills, including a beautiful, later shot from Deep Blue Sea.

The Portrait Artist pictures have now been taken down, but make sure you get yourself to the portrait gallery to see Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth I, as well as their extensive and ever changing displays.

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