Just off Leicester Square in London, and down a bit, there’s a fancy door with three busts over the door. They are the figures of the biographers and historians who founded the museum housed inside, a museum whose patron is the Duchess of Cambridge, and which houses only one kind of painting, in a multitude of styles. The National Portrait Gallery.
The National Portrait Gallery is one of those institutions that feels so British in it’s quirkiness. The gallery only contains portraits, with the focus being on the status of the sitter rather than the fame of the artist or the quality of the work. As you wander through, you’re surrounded by all different kinds of people who have achieved many different things in many different fields, all by artists whose mediums and style vary. The era of the paintings is also various. But it all feels really cohesive, and kinda inspiring.
Founded in 1856 by those men whose busts sit over the door, Phillip Stanhop, 5th Earl, with Thomas Babington Macauley and Thomas Carlyle. Their aim was to create “a gallery of original portraits, such portraits to consist as far as possible of those persons who are most honorably commemorated in British history as warriors or statesmen, or in arts, in literature or in science.”
During it’s first 40 years it moved around a lot, and some paintings were damaged til it found it’s current, permanent home, which you can visit for free. It’s a stroll backwards through time when you wander through it’s halls. Downstairs is the modern portraits, and then upstairs your wander through the Victorian era, back through Charles I and II, and further back to Henry the VIII’s reign. It’s quite remarkable.
I find this gallery is one of the quieter ones in the Summer months, and there’splenty of benches to stop and contemplate life, other people, or past greats. Downstairs sometimes gets over run by school groups, but upstairs the older parts, which are my personal favourites, are often more empty. It also has, like so many London museums, an excellent cafe with very reasonable prices, free wifi and a wonderful gift shop.