National portrait gallery

Our great art institutions have reduced British history to a scrapheap of shame

Let’s indulge in some identity politics for a second: I am from Hong Kong, born as a subject of the last major colony of the British Empire, minority-ethnic, descended from Chinese refugees, now living here in exile. This summer, both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain are presenting new displays that are meant to reflect the ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ identities of Britain. Supposedly, I fit nicely among their target audience. In reality, as an immigrant looking to be included in this nation, I am perplexed by my visits. For two publicly funded museums tasked with telling the story of this country through the portraiture of its eminent figures and

The woman who pioneered colour photography

When colour photography first came in at the start of the last century, it met a surprising amount of resistance from distinguished photographers. But Madame Yevonde loved it, owned it, revelled in it. She invested in a new Vivex repeating back camera, exhorting her fellows at the Royal Photographic Society in 1932: ‘Hurrah, we are in for exciting times. Red hair, uniforms, exquisite complexions and coloured fingernails come into their own… If we are going to have colour photographs, for heaven’s sake let’s have a riot of colour.’ But what she went on to create was far better than that. In her classical series ‘Goddesses’ (1935) she controlled colour like

Why is the National Portrait Gallery cutting ties with BP?

When is money so soiled that merely accepting it makes you tainted? It has been reported today that the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and Scottish Ballet are ending their sponsorship deals with the oil and gas company BP following years of protests. Climate activists argue that these sponsorships launder the reputations of those responsible for despoiling the planet. BP has long been a significant arts sponsor; the NPG’s annual portrait exhibition has been supported by the company since 1989. And in 2016 BP announced renewed sponsorship deals with the British Museum, NPG, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company, pledging a total of £7.5 million over five years,

The joy of socially distanced gallery-going

Not long after the pubs, big galleries have all started to reopen, like flowers unfolding, one by one. The timing reminded me of an anecdote that Lucian Freud used to tell about a Soho painter friend he took into the National Gallery after it had shut (as some senior artists are entitled to do). They arrived after closing time in the drinking holes of Soho, and the painter friend was staggering and swaying so much that Lucian — who was not easily rattled — became alarmed that he was going to put one of his flailing arms through a Rembrandt. I wonder how those art-lovers of yesteryear would have coped

Selfie queen

The selfie is, of course, a major, and to me mysterious, phenomenon of our age. The sheer indefatigability of selfie-takers, not to mention their number, is amazing. Recently, I stayed in an apartment not far from the Trevi Fountain in Rome — a selfie-magnet so powerful that not only was it surrounded by a dense crowd during daylight hours, but a small, determined knot could still be spotted late at night, doggedly snapping away in the dark under a steady drizzle. This global fixation adds an extra interest to the retrospective of work by Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery. She has been making pictures of herself, and little

Art institutions should stop virtue-signalling about funding and focus on what they’re showing

The ethics of the private patronage of arts institutions has never been straightforward issue. But as the preoccupation with transparency and corporate responsibility has grown, wealthy benefactors can nowadays turn from pillars of respectable society to moral pariahs in the blink of an eye. Such is the fate of the fabulously rich Sackler family, major philanthropists with fingers in arts institutions across the UK, in the face of mounting criticism over its close links to Purdue Pharma, the family-owned US pharmaceuticals giant and maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin – the drug now the focus of outrage over the opioid epidemic that has made addicts of thousands in the US

Small wonders | 21 February 2019

When Henry VIII died in 1547, he left a religiously divided country to a young iconoclast who erased a large part of its visual culture. In a brief six years the government of Edward VI effectively whitewashed over England’s native heritage of sacred art, leaving a country already reliant on foreign painters for its royal portraits bereft of an artistic identity. Artistically speaking, Tudor England was the sick man of Europe — and the signs of recovery, when they first appeared, were tiny. Nicholas Hilliard, born in the year of Henry VIII’s death, paradoxically owed his art education to his family’s Protestantism. The son of an Exeter goldsmith swept up

Relative values | 10 January 2019

When he knew that he was dying, Thomas Gainsborough selected an unfinished painting from some years before and set it on the easel in his studio. It was a portrait of his nephew, pupil and assistant Gainsborough Dupont, begun more than a decade earlier and set aside. This little work, which he seems to have intended as a sort of artistic last testament, also hangs at the end of the exhibition Gainsborough’s Family Album. What did he mean to tell us by making a small, intimate picture of a relative the conclusion to a career of more than 40 years? This marvellous and brilliantly conceived exhibition at the National Portrait

Time and motion

Andy Warhol would probably have been surprised to learn that his 1964 film ‘Empire’ had given rise to an entire genre. This work comprises eight hours and five minutes of slow-motion footage of the Empire State Building during which nothing much happens. Warhol remarked that it was a way of watching time pass or, you might say, the Zen of boredom. Much the same could be said of the films in Tacita Dean’s two exhibitions, Portrait and Still Life at the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery respectively. The most ambitious of these, ‘Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS’ (2008), on show at the NPG, is composed of six separate films, each

The apple of his eye

The critic and painter Adrian Stokes once remarked on how fortunate Cézanne had been to be bald, ‘considering the wonderful volume that he always achieved for the dome of his skull’. It’s a good joke, and all the better for being perfectly true — as is demonstrated by the superb sequence of self-portraits included in Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. These are the finest hairless craniums in the history of art. That, however, is only one of the attractions of the exhibition. This is the most impressive array of work, by one of the greatest of all painters, to be seen in London in more than 20 years.

Internal affairs | 23 March 2017

Over 20 years ago I wrote about Giambattista Tiepolo in The Spectator. Shortly afterwards I went to visit Howard Hodgkin in his spacious, white, light-filled studio close to the British Museum. It turned out that he had read my column and was pleased that someone had been discussing this 18th-century Venetian, who was just his idea of what a painter should be: a subtle master of colour, poetic, sensual, a bit neglected — in other words, much as he saw himself. The real subject matter of an artist such as Tiepolo, I suggested that day, is not really the Madonna or the apotheosis of some minor aristocrat. It is something

Back in the USSR

For much of 1517 Michelangelo Buonarroti was busy quarrying marble in the mountains near Carrara. From time to time, however, he received letters relating how his affairs were going in Rome. These contained updates on — among other matters — how his friend and collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo was getting on with a big altarpiece which he hoped, with Michelangelo’s help, would vanquish their joint rival, Raphael. This picture, ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, has been in the National Gallery for almost 200 years now (it is No. 1 in the inventory of the collection). Next March it will be one of the centrepieces in an ambitious exhibition that inaugurates the

The National Portrait Gallery has never had a proper Wellington. Now it has the chance

For some inexplicable reason the National Portrait Gallery, of which I am a trustee, doesn’t have a significant portrait of the Duke of Wellington. There’s one rather stiff picture in oil by Robert Home from when he was a young soldier in India and a few watercolours of him in retirement, but weirdly none at all of the vigorous statesman and victor of Waterloo at the height of his prestige and powers. This is astounding considering that — apart from the Duke of Marlborough — Wellington was by far the greatest soldier Britain has ever produced, and moreover one who went on to become prime minister. Imagine the excitement in

Face time

As a chat-up line it was at least unusual. On 8 January 1927, a 46-year-old man approached a young woman outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris and announced, ‘You have an interesting face; I would like to do your portrait. I feel we are going to do great things together.’ The approach was successful, even though the woman in question, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was bewildered by his subsequent announcement, ‘I am Picasso!’, since she had never heard of the famous artist. Undeniably, great works did result from this chance meeting — as well as an intense affair, which lasted for years. Several are included in the splendid Picasso Portraits

Beauty and the banal

In 1965 William Eggleston took the first colour photograph that, he felt, really succeeded. The location was outside a supermarket in Memphis, Tennessee; the time — to judge from the rich golden light and long shadows — late afternoon. Eggleston’s subject — a young man with a heavily slicked, early Elvis hairstyle stacking trolleys outside the shop — was as ordinary as he could be. But the result was a photographic masterpiece. It is included in the exhibition William Eggleston: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, although, by most definitions, it is not a portrait. Indeed, it is as hard to say just what it is as it is to

Old masters

The Fitzwilliam Museum is marking its bicentenary with an exhibition that takes its title from Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile. But it turns out it was another writer of a different type of fiction who was directly involved. M.R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, amassed some of the exhibits in his capacity as director of the Fitzwilliam from 1893 to 1908. And almost any object on display would have made a perfect prop for one of his tales, because the subject is ancient Egyptian coffins. Generally, the main character in a story by James is a retiring gentleman scholar who comes across a venerable item which

Round-up of new opera

A mixed year so far for new opera. A few really dismal things have appeared from people who should know better. Did the world really need an operatic treatment of Dante’s Divine Comedy for orchestra and chorus? Louis Andriessen thought so; his La Commedia (2004–8) luckily only reared its drab head for one night at the Barbican. If you’re going to splurge as much money as opera often has to splurge, you have to ask yourself why. If you don’t, you create a situation in which operas come about merely because they can, often just to continue the tradition in the most inoffensive way possible. ‘Don’t mind me!’ says this

Repetitive but compelling: Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery reviewed

One day in 1938 Alberto Giacometti saw a marvellous sight on his bedroom ceiling. It was ‘a thread like a spider’s web, but made of dust’, an object that was both ‘very, very fine’ and in constant motion, like a snake except that ‘no animal’, he thought, had ever made such movements: ‘light and sweeping and always different’. This was, you might say, a revelation of the beauty that lay in extreme thinness and fragility. In Giacometti: Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery you see that process of attenuation occurring, in different ways, again and again in his art. In a bronze bust of his younger brother Diego, from

Fancy dress parade

For his 75th birthday, Sir Roy Strong gave himself a personal trainer. For his 80th, he has commissioned a book of portraits of himself by the photographer John Swannell. The fruits of all that training — much of it undertaken on a racing tricycle around the lanes of Herefordshire — can be seen in the six-pack he sports in one of the luscious, technically excellent images. Oh, hold on a mo, it’s the costume of a Roman Emperor, Photoshopped to turn Roy into classical sculpture for his latest garden temple! This magnificently potty book takes us through 30 versions of Roy done after celebrated portraits, or in the manner of

Square meal

The Portrait Restaurant lives at the top of the National Portrait Gallery, London. It is fiercely modern, but likeable. You ride an escalator into a void, glimpse the raging faces of the Plantagenets and take a lift upwards, away from dead kings and film characters walking the streets. (Downstairs, by the entrance to the National Gallery, two competing Yodas from Star Wars are posing for photographs. One is too tall to be a convincing Yoda. Tourists inhabit a different city.) In this long bright room there is no such anxiety; only clean windows to Trafalgar Square and happy women having lunch in a secret glade of stone and brick. You