National Portrait Gallery (London)
History, Galleries, Permanent Collection.

National Portrait Gallery (London)


Permanent Collection
Portrait Artists

Before visiting the
National Portrait Gallery, see:
Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art.

National Portrait Gallery, London is one of the best art museums in the world.


The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in St Martin's Place, London, is one of the top art museums in Europe devoted exclusively to portrait art, and contains works in a variety of different media. Opened to the public in 1856, it moved to its current site next to the National Gallery around the corner from Trafalgar Square, in 1896. The enormous collection of the National Portrait Gallery contains more than 200,000 portraits of historically important and famous British people, together with more than 250,000 original photographic images. There are typically about 1,400 portraits on display at any one time. Although portraiture is selected on the basis of the importance of the sitter, not that of the artist or the materials used, the collection contains works by many of the world's best portrait artists and the the best English painters. Portraitists include the greatest Old Masters and the top modern artists, as well as the most avant-garde postmodernist artists, of all nationalities. In addition to its headquarters at St Martin's Place, the National Portrait Gallery also has three regional centres at Beningbrough Hall (York), Bodelwyddan Castle (Denbighshire, North Wales) and Montacute House (Yeovil, Somerset). Note that the NPG (London) has no connection with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. The NPG receives just over 2 million visitors per year and is sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Other important art centres in the UK include the British Museum, the Tate Gallery (London, Liverpool, St Ives), the Courtauld Gallery (London), the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), and the British Royal Art Collection (various locations). Among the best galleries of contemporary art is the Saatchi Gallery (London).



The NPG commemorates its three principal founders with three portrait busts over the main entrance. They include Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope, together with his two supporters, Thomas Macaulay, and Thomas Carlyle. Following three parliamentary attempts by Stanhope (1846-56) proposing the idea of a National Portrait Gallery, it was finally accepted and duly approved by Queen Victoria in 1856. A sum of £2000 was set aside by parliament to set up the gallery, whose establishment was also overseen by Benjamin Disraeli and by Lord Ellesmere, who donated the first work to the NPG - the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare (1600-1610).

For the first 40 years of its life, the gallery occupied a series of locations in London, including 29 Great George Street, Westminster; Exhibition Road; Bethnal Green Museum; before finally taking up residence in a new building in St Martin's Place, designed by Ewan Christian. Since then the gallery has been extended twice. A new wing, financed by Lord Duveen, was added in 1933, and a second wing financed by Sir Christopher Ondaatje and the Heritage Lottery Fund was opening in 2000.


The National Portrait Gallery is divided into the following displays:

Tudor and Elizabethan Galleries (1485-1603)
Featuring late Renaissance portraits from the era of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare.

Stuart and Civil War Galleries (1603-1714)
Cover the Stuart period, punctuated by the English Civil War, Commonwealth and Protectorate and the Restoration period.

Georgian Galleries (1714-1800)
Featuring Rococo & Neoclassical Portraits from the Hanoverian age during the reigns of King George I, King George II and King George III.

Weldon Galleries (1795-1837)
Contain portraiture from the extended Regency period under King George IV and afterwards, up to the death of King William IV in 1837.

Victorian and Edwardian Galleries (1837-1910)
Lined by magnificent portrait busts this area features 19th century portraits created during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and the reign of King Edward VII to 1910.

20th Century Galleries (1914-90)
Contain works by 20th century portrait artists from the onset of the First World War until the end of the 1980s.

Lerner Galleries
Showcase for contemporary portraits (surrealist, pop) from the 1960s to the present.

Permanent Collection

The National Portrait Gallery was established on the basis that its collection was to be about "history", rather than the "art", and about the identity and status of the sitter, not the quality or type of image produced. This criterion is still used when deciding which works should or should not be included in the National Portrait Gallery's collection. In addition, at the beginning, it was agreed by the gallery's Trustees that "No portrait of any person still living, or deceased less that 10 years" should be acquired, except in the case of the reigning Sovereign. This rule was relaxed in 1969 in order to permit the admission of living sitters. In addition to its collections of historical portraits, the NPG showcases a rapidly changing selection of contemporary art, organizes exhibitions of portraiture by individual artists and hosts the annual BP Portrait Prize competition.

Although as you might expect, painting and drawing are the two main types of art in the NPG, the primary collection also includes a host of works in different media. They include portraits in acrylics, gouache, grisaille, and watercolour, along with works drawn in biro, chalk, charcoal, Conté crayon, ink, pastels, pen and ink, pencil and silverpoint. It includes portrait prints like etchings, aquatints, engravings, lithographs, silk-screen prints and woodcuts, as well as portraits made with contemporary media including assemblage, papier-mâché, cardboard and stencils. Its sculpture portraits include works in bronze, clay, enamel, terracotta, plaster, marble, wax and wood. There are also numerous examples of miniature painting, cartoons, and caricature art, as well as mosaics.

The oldest work is an oil painting of King Henry VII, dated 1505, by an unknown Netherlandish artist. The smallest is a miniature portrait (the size of a thumbnail) of Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orleans, thought to be by Jean Petitot, possibly after Pierre Mignard, which dates to the 17th century. The largest work is a portrait by John Singer Sargent, entitled General Officers of World War I (1922), which measures some 5.3 metres in width.

In addition, there is a significant collection of portrait photography, including some 130,000 original negatives.

Portrait Artists

The NPG's primary collection contains portrait paintings by many of greatest visual artists, both from Britain and around the world. Here is a very short selection of the portraits on display.


King Henry VIII; King Henry VII (1537)
Ink and watercolour
By Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543)

Queen Elizabeth I (1573)
Oil on canvas
By Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619)

Anthony van Dyck - Self Portrait (1640)
Oil on canvas
By Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

Samuel Johnson (1757)
Oil on canvas
By Joshua Reynolds (1723-92)

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1765)
Oil on canvas
By Allan Ramsay (1713-84)

John Henderson (1775)
Oil on canvas
By Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)

John Home (1818)
Oil on canvas
By Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

John Philip Kemble (1820)
Oil on canvas
By Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830)

Charles Dickens (1839)
Oil on canvas
By Daniel Maclise (1806–1870)

Alfred Tennyson (1840)
Oil on canvas
By Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98)

Sir Richard Burton (1872-85)
Oil on canvas
By Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)

Gladstone (1879)
Oil on canvas
By John Everett Millais (1829-96)

Cardinal Manning (1881)
Oil on canvas
By George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)

Augustus John (c.1900)
Oil on canvas
By William Orpen (1878-1931)

Winston Churchill (1927)
Oil on canvas
By Walter Sickert (1860-1942)

Ramsay MacDonald (1931)
Oil on canvas
By John Lavery (1856-1941)

George Bernard Shaw (1934)
Bronze bust
By Jacob Epstein (1880–1959)

Laurence Stephen Lowry - Self Portrait (1938)
Oil on canvas
By Laurence Stephen ('L.S.') Lowry (1887-1976)

T.S. Eliot (1949)
Oil on canvas
By Patrick Heron (1920-99)

Barbara Hepworth - Self Portrait (1950)
Oil and pencil on board
By Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)

Kenneth Clark (1964)
Oil on canvas
By Graham Sutherland (1903-80)

Don Bachardy; Christopher Isherwood (1976)
By David Hockney (b.1937)

Arnold Goodman (1985)
Charcoal drawing
By Lucian Freud (1922-2011)

Death Mask (2002) A Self-Portrait
By Tracey Emin (b.1963)

In addition, there are portraits by the pioneer figurative painter William Hogarth (1697-1764), the horse painter George Stubbs (1724-1806), the visual chronicler Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), chiaroscuro expert Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), British-American artist John Singleton Copley (1737-1815), and the President of the Royal Academy Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850), to name but a few.


The collection of camera art contains photo-portraits by many of the world's greatest photographers, of which the following is a tiny sample.

Portrait Photograph of Anthony Trollope (1864)
Albumen print, 1864
By Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79)

Portrait Photograph of W.H. Auden (1930)
Vintage bromide print on white card mount
By Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

Portrait Photograph of Virginia Woolf (1934)
Silver print
By Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) (1890-1976)

Portrait Photograph of Princess Elizabeth II (1943)
Cibachrome print
By Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

Portrait Photograph of Vivien Leigh; Laurence Olivier (1949)
Modern bromide print
By Larry Burrows (1926-1971)

Portrait Photograph of Duchess of Windsor; Duke of Windsor (1957)
Bromide print
By Richard Avedon (1923-2004)

Portrait Photograph of Michael Caine (1965)
Bromide print
By David Bailey (b.1938)

Portrait Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II; Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; Princess Margaret (1980) "The Blue Portrait"
Colour print
By Norman Parkinson (1913-90)

Portrait Photograph of John Cleese (1990)
C-type colour print
By Annie Leibovitz (b.1949)


• For more details about painting and sculpture in the UK, see: Homepage.

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