The National Portrait Gallery in London contains what is essentially a chronological history of Britain through portraiture. Yet the gallery is currently undergoing major refurbishments, and so the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra will play host to over 80 works from its vast collection. As NPG curator Joanna Gilmour says of the London portraits, “It starts with Elizabethan and Tudor period portraits and goes right through to contemporary times.”
Assembled from works usually on permanent display in London, Shakespeare to Winehouse includes portraits of well-known historical figures created by artists like Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud, Peter Paul Rubens and Tracey Emin. Rather than presenting portraits chronologically, the NPG has curated six themes—Fame, Power, Love and Loss, Identity, Innovation and Self Portraits— to allow images created centuries apart to be exhibited side by side. “By doing it this way, we were able to focus on how artists have addressed the same ideas across history—whether they are making portraits 500 years ago or today,” says Gilmour.
One of the most significant works in the show is a small painting of William Shakespeare c. 1600-1610 by John Taylor, thought to be the only remaining portrait the playwright sat for during his lifetime. “It was the first work NPG London acquired when they were founded in 1856 and it rarely leaves London,” Gilmour reveals. “It’s a humble work, it’s not very big and the artist hasn’t gone to any trouble to make him look like more than just a regular person.”
Gilmour also highlights a portrait of the Brontë sisters by their brother Patrick, as “it speaks volumes about the challenges women writers faced in the 1800s”, and Shirin Neshat’s 2018 portrait of activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai. “Neshat’s portrait of Malala is another smaller work, it doesn’t have to be on a large scale because her gaze is so strong and direct. To be able to look into the eyes of people like Malala Yousafzai and get a sense of their inner being is really inspiring.”
This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.