I’ve spent every evening of the past week in the midsummer gloaming, making the most of the longest days of the year. London has been en fête. The National Portrait Gallery’s long-awaited reopening was occasion for an enormous party, but I found it to be a weirdly disorientating experience. As an ex-trustee, for eight years I thought I knew the place pretty well. I could find my favourite portraits on autopilot, using a mental map of the different galleries. I had even worked with the team there on British Vogue’s 100th anniversary exhibition in 2016. But last week it was all change, as the whole place has been reconfigured by architect Jamie Fobert and director Nick Cullinan. They have created more natural light, new spaces and a different perspective on the collection.
As I meandered round the beautifully re-hung galleries, it was like looking at one’s own reflection in a hall of mirrors – recognisable but only just. Instead of the previous, faintly apologetic main entrance, there is now the splendid Ross Place forecourt. As David Ross – donor and chair of the NPG – stood greeting the crowd of guests, I wondered whether having his name etched in stone, forever part of one of London’s most prestigious galleries, would be some compensation for having his nomination rejected on Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list. There are many who would consider the Ross Place plaque a far greater glory.
The next day I visited the London Library (where I am a vice-president) in search of a copy of The Spectator. This was not because I am a cheapskate trying to avoid handing over my own cash but because newspaper vendors are now a rare species in central London. The library, housed in St James’s Square, is part of the ecosystem of gentlemanly clubs, tailors, hedge funds and art galleries in this sector of Mayfair and that afternoon, as ever, the Jermyn Street hunch was on fine display.