As if The National Gallery in London was not quite enough with all its mighty interior and various displays, there is a special part of it which I like to call ‘the cherry on top’ – The National Portrait Gallery. More than a hundred years ago, after a relatively long period of struggling to survive, attract visitors and enlarge its collection, the incomparable to any other Portrait Gallery joined her bigger sister at Trafalgar Square and has allured more and more tourists and true connoisseurs of art and history ever since.
What can you find at The National Portrait Gallery?
The National Portrait Gallery of London is not any ordinary gallery. To begin with, when it first opened its doors to visitors, it was the first ever gallery exclusively for portraits, maybe that has something to do with the dozen of years it took to finally be accepted as a project and the next 4 decades in which it changed locations again and again, but with time the gallery managed to establish itself as one of the most respected and rich ones in Europe and in the world, containing over 200 000 pieces in its collection! And not only was is a first of its kind, but it has a special feature even today – it displays portraits of all kinds of famous British people, be they historical figures, royals or just emblematic for the country for any other reason. This also means that the excellency of the artwork is not of primary importance – even if it is something done by an amateur it could still be featured. Such examples are the portraits of the Bronte sisters whose brother Patrick drew – did you even know that they had a brother who liked to draw? This is what The National Portrait Gallery is all about: not merely showing the exquisite chedouvers of renown artists but also tackling into your natural curiosity for the personal lives, careers and relations to art of various famous individuals. Of course, at the National Portrait Gallery in London you will also see plenty of artistically valuable pieces like, for example, Picasso’s portraits and the most famous picture of William Shakespeare – the Chandos Portrait. Also, you should know that the gallery is home to a lot of photographs, caricatures and sculptures, not only paintings – the experience you get is full!
As many of the exhibits there are only temporary, I suggest that you first have a look at What’s on at the National Portrait Gallery before visiting. If you are just visiting London as a tourist, hopefully you can see the planned exhibitions beforehand and decide when would be the most appropriate time for your trip! And if you are local – even better – you can check regularly or sign up for the newsletter and get the chance to visit different exhibitions! One of the best times to visit the National Portrait Gallery would be during the famous event they host each year – The BP Portrait Competition. This is one of the most prestigious contests in the world of contemporary art and each year there is a huge flux of contestants whose works go not only through a jury but through the visitors’ evaluation, too – you have the chance to vote for your personal favorite piece. Or you might even enter the contest – the prize is £30 000, so why not?
Explore the Portraits in Detail
Most people prefer to visit a museum or gallery in the company of a guide or at least an audio recording that would provide them with the ‘juicy details’ of each piece exhibited. I agree with this strategy, otherwise you’d probably miss curious stories behind the whole collection and surely see a lot of the pieces as, well, meaningless. That is why The National Portrait Gallery has taken extra care to give its visitors the best experience possible and has provided several devices used to browse through the whole collection available and create your own tour if you wish! With the so-called Portrait Explorer you can literally explore every detail of the piece of interest. By literally I mean that you can actually use the touch screen to magnify the artwork multiple times and see, for example, Queen Victoria’s skin pores…Of course this is not the only advantage of the Portrait Explorer – you can also use it to look at a lot of historical documents and related artifacts, watch interviews and talks with artists and historians on hot topics regarding the piece of art and even identify everyone that is a part of a group portrait! That thing is pretty much the richest tour guide/encyclopedia ever!
After all these descriptions of the gallery, you probably just need to know when you can go and how much it would cost you. Well, luckily for you, just like London’s National Gallery the Portrait Gallery is public body so the entrance is free of charge! Not that an entry fee would stop many people, as this gallery is a complete must-see for anyone who’s set foot in London, but the fact that a lot of the most magnificent cultural bodies in London are free for visitors is definitely a plus.
As for the opening hours, you can visit the National Portrait Gallery every day between 10:00 and 18:00 and on Thursdays and Fridays there are special late shifts allowing visitors an inspiring start of the weekend up until 21:00. But don’t wait for the last minute, plan your time ahead so that you have enough to go through all the displayed works!
What Else is There?
If you have some more time to spend at the gallery and you have somehow seen all the works there is actually more to the gallery than you think! You can stop for a break, as we know how tiring a sight-seeing day can be, or even plan your dinner at the National Portrait Gallery. Of course, you won’t be dining alongside the actual masterpieces; there is a great Portrait Restaurant – you can have lunch, afternoon tea or dinner here and you will definitely not be disappointed by the delicious menu. And by the view. You can sip your tea while gazing outside the windows over the lively Trafalgar square! Here you can view the sample menus and even book a table online if you happen to like the idea of dining at the Portrait Restaurant (which also functions as a bar by the way). For those who are searching for a not-so-fancy experience at the Portrait Gallery, you can also opt for the Portrait Café serving exquisite coffee treats!
I’d also like to introduce you to another perk of London’s National Portrait Gallery – the Print Shop. The gallery offers a great service for the art lovers of London; you can easily search through the whole collection of the gallery and pick a piece (or two) that you would like to hang on your own wall to enjoy every day. Once you’ve picked the work, you can decide on a size and framing – that is how prices are calculated: you can get a small postcard version of your favorite portrait for as little as £6 or go big and print the original size of the work on a framed canvas for about £70. Here you can look at the prices for the different prints and even browse through the collection online – yes, you can order a print even if you’re not at the gallery itself! Good luck choosing only one though…Fortunately, your choice is at least a bit restricted since you can’t take home a version of the sculptures at the gallery; but we expect that to arise as a possibility soon too, 3D printers are not science fiction anymore!
And one last major thing that you need to know! Not exactly one to be honest. The National Portrait Gallery host the most attractive events art connoisseurs can think of! To begin with, each Thursday and Friday there is the Late Shift Bar at the main hall where you are offered various drinks to close the art night properly!
And if you want to experience art not only as a viewer, there are many events in which you can participate. Some allow you to enroll together with your family – let’s say if you want to fire up your kid’s interest in art; a workshop lead by acknowledged artists would be the perfect way to explore your children’s talents from a very early age. And for the already grown up children that have found their interest in art, particularly in depicting people, there are also excellent workshops that can give you insight into a new skill or immensely develop a new one. Many local and guest artists organize all kinds of lessons at the gallery in all areas of visual arts, be it painting, sketches or photography – browse through them to choose between the many options, I promise, they are not even expensive!
If you are more interested in the history and philosophy behind great works of art rather than in attempting to produce such yourself, London’s National Portrait Gallery also hosts very interesting talks and lectures on different topics – educated artists and historians do their best to compel you to get into an artist’s head or to get to the bottom of why and how a masterpiece came to exist. Some of these talks can be visited even by tourists because every day there is the emblematic for the gallery ‘Portrait of the Day’ talk and entrance to it is completely free! And lastly, the gallery also hosts regular events connected to the other types of art. It actually turns out that this is a perfect venue for musical performances of various sorts; usually to be in tune with the theme of the gallery (remember, portraits of British people) the musicians are local, but still widely acknowledged. You can also browse through the many peculiar visual spectacles – you won’t be disappointed by visiting an extra-ordinary performance of British contemporary artists; you can also look for the available movies that the public can enjoy at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
I truly hope you don’t feel overwhelmed by all this information concerning the many many features of London’s National Gallery! If you do indeed feel like there is actually too much to explore – take a deep breath, read my post again and write a short list with all you’d like to do there. You’ll need at least a couple of hours, but the time is worth it. Take a memorabilia back home – something from the gift shop or a stunning large print of an artwork and if you happen to visit one of the workshops or performances – feel welcome to share with us in comments how it was and what impressed you most and what you would recommend to the other eager tourists!