Mark Glazebrook

Portrait of a director

Mark Glazebrook talks to Sandy Nairne, who explains why the NPG is part of the life of London

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Mark Glazebrook talks to Sandy Nairne, who explains why the NPG is part of the life of London

David Piper, director of the National Portrait Gallery 1964–67, was a brilliant historian and museum director who, while writing a book called The English Face, found that there’s no such thing. It vanished like the smile on Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat.

Piper himself was disinclined to mastermind the much-needed radical reform of a musty old institution — a challenge successfully embraced by his young colleague and successor, Roy Strong. Strong’s Cecil Beaton show, a first for photography, drew previously undreamed of crowds. Today, attendance figures have risen to 1.6 million per annum. In the wake of the far-reaching Strong revolution, the gallery has expanded with the help of generous donors such as Sir Christopher Ondaatje. It seems to have gone from strength to strength, most obviously in its improved display and lighting — under John Hayes, Charles Saumarez Smith and now Sandy Nairne, the director since 2002.

The current NPG chairman David Canadine, in his brief history of the gallery, mentions that Germaine Greer has ‘denounced it as a place of second-rate art — yet its purpose remains primarily historical...’. While many critics complain that much current portrait painting is too photographic, Nairne is bullish about today’s portraitists in many media. ‘I can spot three or four generations of excellent portrait painters who are coming through,’ he says, ‘although they may not be in the forefront of Frieze Magazine.’

He is full of praise for the abilities of many of his colleagues in various departments, which include the historic collections, research, large and small temporary exhibitions, lecture programmes, the publications department and the three outposts of the NPG in Yorkshire, Somerset and North Wales. Their professionalism allows him to concentrate on his own priorities. One of these is building up the portrait fund. ‘It really matters that we build up our ability to acquire great portraits. It’s now up at £2.5 million. I want to get it up to £5.6 and then up towards £10 million.’

While interviewing him the thought occurred to me that perhaps the long Oscar Wilde-generated battle, between arty types and sporty types, may have been resolved in the energetic dual personality of this alert and athletic-looking director. Nairne possesses what P.G. Wodehouse could have described as ‘rugged good looks’. He read history as an undergraduate and has acquired his considerable knowledge and experience of art while working at the Tate, the Arts Council and at the ICA — where he was noted for promoting women artists.

It’s no surprise to discover that in the early 1970s Nairne rowed for Oxford University in the Isis crew or that he is strongly in favour of the NPG’s fairly recent policy of featuring popular sporting heroes, such as David Beckham — even though the iconic footballer is captured fast asleep rather than ‘bending it’ near the goalpost, in Sam Taylor-Wood’s popular video portrait of him. Stardom for sportsmen is something that neither Oscar Wilde nor Nairne’s sober 19th-century predecessors at the NPG would ever have countenanced. As Nairne puts it, ‘Our Victorian forebears didn’t really regard sport as an interesting area of achievement.’

But what about great fighting commanders who would have been grist to Reynolds’s mill? I mentioned three prominent living soldiers who seem to have been neglected by the NPG. Nairne explained that, although we are not now in a period when wars are thought to be about national survival, a portrait of General Sir Mike Jackson has been commissioned as well as a portrait of the heroic driver, Private Johnson Beharry VC.

Sandy Nairne comes across as open, fair-minded and above all democratic. Anyone can propose himself or herself to be an NPG trustee nowadays. Nairne feels that the NPG is ‘part of the life of London in a much more open way than the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. We are part of Charing Cross Road, Covent Garden and Soho,’ he says. Before our talk, the downstairs receptionist and telephonist referred to him as ‘Sandy’ rather than ‘Mr Nairne’ or ‘the Director’ or ‘Sir’. I imagine that this is how he likes it. I asked him how life at the NPG differed from working at the Tate. ‘By the time I finished at the Tate with Nick [Serota] we had over 800 employees,’ he said, ‘whereas here I’ve got about 250 ...I’m very, very happy with that number because I know most of them.’

When questioned about his own taste he replied that he was continually making judgments but that ‘you may have personal interests but the fact is that you are running a public institution and you need to be able to try to look across the range of what’s happening’. He is proud of his involvement in recent shows such as the Self Portrait exhibition, the Face of Fashion, the Mario Testino show and the David Hockney retrospective. In the ongoing debate about the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, he argues that it should keep changing.

The first question I asked Sandy Nairne was why it had fallen to England to be so pioneering in the field of National Portrait Galleries given that the continent of Europe, for example, remains largely uninterested in such an institution to this day. He pointed out that, when the NPG was formed in 1856, ‘Germany was a set of states, Italy was a set of small countries’. As for France, ‘You are either a citizen and everybody is important as a citizen or you are in a Pantheon, i.e., among a very few Godlike people and there’s not much in between.’ In England, on the other hand, a great educational movement arose, which included the museum movement. The humbly born ‘great sage of Chelsea, Thomas Carlisle [a founding father of the NPG], writes an essay in 1840 on heroes’. Influential thinkers and politicians realised that it was a good idea to understand history because ‘there were moral and political lessons to be learnt from it’. One of these lessons was how to avoid revolution by building up a ‘secure idea of national identity and nationhood’.

‘Is the National Portrait Gallery in favour of multiculturalism now? Are you in favour of it?’ I asked. ‘We are into a period of complex culture made up of all kinds of people who’ve contributed to British society and British achievement from incredibly different perspectives,’ he replied. ‘We have seen in this last century waves of fascinating immigrant communities...making these astonishing contributions. It’s such a long story but I talk about it in terms of complexity.’

Is complexity the new multiculturalism? Does Gordon Brown know? If there were such a thing as the English face it would be incredibly complex, it’s true. One thing is certain. Sandy Nairne is a man with many responsibilities, who really enjoys his work.

Tom Miller