Sunday 29 March 2009

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, central London

Packed with portraits of famous figures from the past five centuries, the National Portrait Gallery is as much a treat for British history buffs as for art-lovers. If you are neither, you will still enjoy the ground floor galleries which feature an incredibly diverse collection of paintings, photographs, montages and the occasional sculpture of contemporary figures against a backdrop of simple white walls. They range from a cartoon-like depiction of Salman Rushdie painted on linen to a carved wooden head of Andrew Motion, the recent poet laureate, to a brooding oil painting of actor Pete Postlethwaite to a huge, captivating and amazingly photographic black and white painting of biochemist Paul Nurse. By contrast, the gloomy and rather oppressive galleries at the top of the tall escalator are given over to flattish, staid paintings of Tudor royalty. Down one level are the Victorian galleries lined with a series of marble black busts and white busts of distinguished dignitaries with facial hair. Many of the paintings here are surprisingly eye catching, such as one of thirty or so Victorian VIPs mingling at a social gathering.

Mustachioed and Arrogant
But others leave you cold. Dominating one wall is a stiff, almost frigid 1913 painting of King George V, Queen Mary and their son and daughter. Nearby is a massive and overwhelmingly-khaki painting of twenty mustachioed and arrogant British generals from the First World War. The accompanying caption points out how they were ridiculed by their men for leading from the rear. In the twentieth century galleries, the styles become ever more diverse and experimental and the subjects tougher to identify. But they are still worth a lengthy browse. In places, the National Portrait Gallery itself, built in Florentine Renaissance style, steals the show. There are some beautiful mosaic floors, elegant archways and the decor is suitably arty. On the top floor is a restaurant with views across Trafalgar Square, while in the basement is an expensive cafe where a modest slice of cake will set you back £3. You also have to pay for some temporary exhibitions, but entrance to most of the galleries is free and you may want to come back time and again. 8/10