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National Portrait Gallery Reopens

June 23, 2023
Stone exterior facade

The National Portrait Gallery, London

Trafalgar Square is one of London’s most iconic public spaces. Apart from Nelson’s Column and the enormous bronze lion statues, the square is also the site of some of London’s great cultural institutions, including the National Gallery and the recently-reopened National Portrait Gallery. The NPG opened its doors back up earlier in the week after nearly three years of renovations. The museum is home to some of Britain’s finest examples of portraiture across all media, including the famous Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare, Yousuf Karsh’s photograph of Winston Churchill, and Allan Ramsay’s resplendent portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

One of the most notable changes to the gallery is the entrance. Right after passing through Trafalgar Square, the NPG now offers a small forecourt and three enormous bronze doors created by Tracey Emin. The doors are decorated with forty-five panels, each with a different female face. This was rather intentional, installed as an echo or response to the eighteen carved relief busts of great men of the arts like Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Anthony van Dyck. Gallery visitors can see these busts looking down on them from high up on the building’s exterior. Emin stated that she did not want the faces on the doors to be specific, identifiable women, but a collage meant to represent all womanhood: “I felt like the doors of the National Portrait Gallery should represent every woman, every age and every culture throughout time.” In the same sense, the curators’ rehang for the opening also tries to reflect a more balanced approach. In the past, many have commented on the gender imbalance among the artists represented on the gallery walls. When the NPG closed for renovations, about 35% of the artists represented were women. Now, 48% of the portraits on display are by female artists.

Despite this marked improvement, many critics wrote that the rehang seems slightly underwhelming. Much emphasis is given to Tudor and Victorian portraits, while the twentieth- and twenty-first-century works seem a little difficult to locate. Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones described the NPG, both before and after the renovations, as “a museum with barely any great art in it”. Jones also wrote that despite the curators’ best attempts, the NPG is still “a collection of notable faces with no regard for artistic depth.”

Sir Paul McCartney was present at the reopening since one of the Gallery’s inaugural exhibitions will be a series of the musician’s photographs. Eyes of the Storm will include some rare photographs McCartney took with his 35mm camera between 1963 and 1964, showing scenes from the Beatles’ touring days across Europe and North America. Also present was Catherine, Princess of Wales, as she is the gallery’s royal patron. But there was some gossip about the princess and the new rehang in the weeks leading up to the reopening. Some noticed that one particular work was missing, a portrait of Prince William and Prince Harry by the painter Nicky Phillips. The painting was created around 2010, showing a candid moment between the two brothers dressed in military uniforms. Because of the princess’s royal patronage and the scandalous rift between the two princes that has widened in recent years, some speculate that Catherine pulled some strings to remove the princely double portrait from the new rehang. The NPG has denied these accusations, pointing out that the Phillips portrait has not been on display since 2018, about two years before the gallery closed for renovations. Of course, logically, the princess probably doesn’t have much influence over the gallery curators. It also seems more like a plot point from a television drama than real life. But yet again, that won’t exactly stop people from speculating.