The improvements start from the outside as now we enter through the longer side of the building with a wider atrium to welcome us; no longer being throttled through the old narrow entrance is a vast improvement. The outer facade features historic busts of artists and thinkers such as Horace Walpole and Joshua Reynolds, but it’s all men. To balance this out, the doors below now feature 45 bronze portraits of women by Tracey Emin in a fitting contrast.
This commitment to better gender representation continues through the new hang so there are more women in the historic sections than there used to be. Now history has always been male dominated so Ada Lovelace still continues to cut a lonely female figure in a room full of male engineers and scientists such as James Watt, Isambard Brunel and George Stephenson, and you can’t have a Tudor section without a focus on Henry VIII – though the gallery is clear in reminding us of his heinous treatment of his wives.
The gender balance is corrected through the contemporary section with a mural by Jann Haworth of 130 inspiring historical and contemporary women from Boudicca through to today and there are striking portraits of contemporary women on display including a black and white one of activist Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Nesrat.
The gallery also opens with a temporary exhibition to Yevonde, a female pioneer of colour photography in a show that’s beautifully curated to ensure we admire both her monochrome and colour photography.
Another welcome addition to the collection is a focus on colonialism and how art can be used as propaganda, drawing attention to paintings that depict Britain as civilising the rest of the world rather than exploiting it. A further painting shows the British in a heroic light at the siege of Lucknow, even though it resulted in the indiscriminate killing of many Indian civilians and soldiers. It’s important to reframe these narratives and it’s great to see this in the new hang.
There’s lots new but there’s also plenty of old favourites back on show and it’s great to see portraits of everyone from Elizabeth I to Joshua Reynolds. The latter is cleverly hung in a salon-style room where he looks upon a work of his own, a newly acquired portrait of Mai – the first Polynesian to visit Britain.
The National Portrait Gallery is one of London’s major cultural attractions and it’s great to have it back, and it looks good after a lengthy refurb. And a chance to see its vast collection of excellent portraits – both old and new – is always a treat.
The collection at the gallery is free to visit and permanently on show. Yevonde: Life and Colour is on until Sunday 15 October, £15-£17 for adults.
Second and third photos © David Parry
|National Portrait Gallery reopening review
|National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE | MAP
|Charing Cross (underground)
22 Jun 23 – 31 Dec 23, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
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