Gallery history


Above the entrance of the Gallery are the busts of the three men - all biographers and historians - chiefly responsible for the Gallery's existence. In the centre is Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope (1805-1875); his efforts resulted in the Gallery's foundation in 1856; he is flanked by two of his staunchest supporters, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Stanhope first introduced the idea to the House of Commons in 1846; he tried again in 1852 and after he took his seat in the House of Lords he tried for a third time in 1856. On 4 March he made a statement to the House of Lords pleading for the establishment of a National Portrait Gallery, '...a gallery of original portraits, such portraits to consist as far as possible of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in arts, in literature or in science'. Stanhope urged the immediate foundation of the Gallery in temporary accommodation, and with Queen Victoria's approval, three months after the debate, the House of Commons agreed to vote a sum of £2000 towards the establishment of a "British Historical Portrait Gallery".

The National Portrait Gallery was formally established on 2 December 1856, and amongst its founder Trustees were Stanhope as Chairman, Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Ellesmere, a former Trustee of the National Gallery, who offered to the nation the so-called Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, which became the first picture to enter the Gallery's collection. On Ellesmere's death in 1857 Carlyle became a Trustee.

The National Portrait Gallery was established with the criteria that the Gallery was to be about history, not about art, and about the status of the sitter, rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art. This criterion is still used by the Gallery today when deciding which works enter the National Portrait Gallery's collection. Originally, it was decided by the Trustees that "No portrait of any person still living, or deceased less that 10 years, shall be admitted by purchase, donation, or bequest, except only in the case of the reigning Sovereign, and of his or her Consort". This rule changed in 1969 in order to encourage a policy of admitting living sitters.

George Scharf and the early years

On 4 March 1857, the Trustees appointed George Scharf, an illustrator, as the Gallery's first Secretary, and he remained in office for almost forty years. In the early years he carried out almost all of the activities of the Gallery single-handed, from authenticating portraits and writing notes on the acquisitions to acting as guide and keeping the accounts. He recorded the portraits offered to the Gallery as annotated sketches in pocket books, and these are still a valuable source of information.

The Gallery's early years were spent without a permanent home and for forty years the collection was moved around London to a succession of homes. During the first thirteen years of its existence the Gallery was housed at 29 Great George Street, Westminster. The Gallery opened to the public in this elegant Georgian brick house for the first time on 15 January 1859. However, the lighting, display of the portraits and the circulation arrangements were all inadequate and there was not enough space. The collection had been allocated two rooms, a small back room and the walls of a staircase, but it later overflowed into the entrance hall. There was not enough room to display the government's gift of George Hayter's painting The Reformed House of Commons and to make best use of space the collection had to be arranged primarily by size. The space problem worsened as Scharf increased the Gallery's holdings during the years at Great George Street from 57 to 288 items. At the same time the number of visitors increased from 5,300 in 1859 to 34,500 in 1869, the final year at Great George Street.

In 1868 Lord John Manners, the First Commissioner of Works, discussed with Scharf the possibility of removing the collections to accommodation in South Kensington, as a temporary measure, pending the enlargement of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, with the intention of placing the two collections under the same roof. After a degree of uncertainty, the Gallery left 29 Great George Street on 31 December 1869.

The Gallery's new home was in the Royal Horticultural Society's buildings on Exhibition Road in South Kensington. It had been allocated a couple of rooms and a long gallery. At first this seemed to be a success and there was perhaps three times as much space to hang the collection as at Great George Street. The display was better, with the portraits arranged, as far as possible, by death date of the subject, and they were given full explanatory captions. Visitor numbers increased, with 59,000 in the first year, rising to 80,000 in 1877. Still the accommodation was soon found to be unsatisfactory, as many portraits had to hung high, portraits were crowded together, making circulation difficult and the largest portraits had to be hung out of chronological sequence on end walls. Following a fire on 12 June 1885 in the same buildings which was controlled before it reached the Gallery, and a damning subsequent report on the fire hazard faced, the Trustees were urged to consent to the removal of the collection as a loan to the Bethnal Green Museum, which then took place on 1 September 1885.

The Bethnal Green Museum had opened in 1872 as an offshoot of the South Kensington Museum. Its aim was to provide a home for scientific and artistic exhibitions in a location accessible to the people of the East End. Bethnal Green was an unpopular location for the Gallery, as it was not convenient for visitors from central London, and it was claimed that it was an unsafe environment for works of art. The iron roof with its glass skylights gave little protection against heat and cold, it suffered from condensation and it was not waterproof. In the winter of 1888-9 melted snow got in and dripped on to five portraits and the Trustees asked for a report on the condition of the collection. Many of the pictures were found to be in a deplorable condition: 'dreadful state...canvas in a terrible state' (Godfrey Kneller's James II); 'paint lifting and blistering all over' (Cardinal Wolsey) were two of the typical comments. This coincided with renewed calls to find a permanent home for the Gallery: a Memorial from the Trustees of the Gallery to the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury attracted the signatures of 350 influential public figures, including Robert Browning, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, Cardinal Manning, Sir John Millais and Lord Tennyson.

St Martin's Place

In 1889, philanthropist, William Henry Alexander (1832-1905), was reported to have offered to pay for a permanent building, provided the government gave a site within a mile and a half of St James's Street, and Lord Salisbury confirmed that the government would accept the offer and donor's condition. Quickly the government assigned a site which had previously been occupied by St Martin's Workhouse to the north-east of the National Gallery. The donor was able to insist on his choice of architect, Ewan Christian (1814-1895). Alexander initially promised £60,000 towards the cost of the new building and later added £20,000, whilst the government also contributed £16,000 in addition to contributing the site. Alexander later bequeathed a portrait of John Thurloe to the Gallery.

Christian created three linked but visually distinct components: the east block, the entrance block and the north block, with the entrance block acting as a pivot between the other two. The entrance block was recessed to fit into the angled corner of the site as St Martin's Place turns into Charing Cross Road. They were realised in Florentine Renaissance style which the architect preferred, while respecting the architecture of the National Gallery in the east block, and all were faced with Portland stone. The east block was originally the sculpture gallery, with picture galleries on the first floor. The design of the front of the entrance block is based on the facade of the oratory of Santo Spirito in Bologna, a building Christian probably saw during one of his Italian tours. The north block, on three floors, is modelled on Florentine Renaissance palazzi. Christian intended to express the second floor on the exterior by means of a sculpted frieze of figures in scenes from British history, but it was abandoned to save money.

The exteriors of the entrance block and north block are decorated with Portland stone blocks of eminent portrait artists, biographical writers and historians, set in roundels with wreaths or garlands. They were realised by Frederick C. Thomas: the sequence is: Carlyle, Stanhope and Macaulay (over the main entrance); James Granger (1723-1776), William Faithorne (1616-1691) and Edmund Lodge (1756-1839) (over the north side of the entrance block); Thomas Fuller (1608-1661); The Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674); Horace Walpole (1717-1797) (over the east side of the north block); Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), Louis François Roubiliac (1702-1762), William Hogarth (1697-1764), Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841) (over the north side of the north block).

Sadly, neither Scharf or Christian lived to see the opening of the new building, Christian died of a chill in February 1895 and Scharf died in April 1895, shortly after retiring from the post of Director due to bad health. Lionel Cust (1859-1929) of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum became the Gallery's second director in 1895 and presided over the final stages of the building work and oversaw the preparation, move and arrangement of the exhibits. The doors were opened at 10am on 4 April 1896 without an official ceremony, and 4,200 people visited the new building on the opening day. The first six-monthly figures of nearly 169,000 visitors was greater than the best yearly figure at South Kensington, in spite of an entrance fee of sixpence on two days a week.

The Duveen Wing

By the time the new Gallery opened it was already too small to display the Gallery's growing collection; in the months that followed the opening the Gallery pressed for expansion on the site of St George's Barracks along Orange Street; the Trustees made further appeals in 1903 and 1906. Initially promising plans to divide up the site between the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery were dashed by the First World War. By 1924 the collection had doubled in size since 1896; renewed appeals led to an agreement in principle to a government paid extension, but financial circumstances meant this had to be rescinded. However, in 1928 the art dealer and benefactor, Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) agreed to fund a £40,000 extension, which took the form of a wing along Orange Street, 100ft long and 32ft wide, comprising three floors and a basement, faced on the exterior with smooth Portland stone. King George V and Queen Mary opened the new Duveen wing, designed by the Office of Works architects Sir Richard Allison and J.G. West, on 30 March 1933. The ground floor and second floors with vestibule and one large room retain their original plans; the first floor still has the vestibule, but where it now only has one room it originally consisted of four octagonal ones, all entered by a corridor.

Post-war developments

The post-war National Portrait Gallery was, so far as it is possible to judge from the autobiography of Sir David Piper, a director of the National Portrait Gallery, a fairly quiet and scholarly establishment. However, a key member of staff who was to take the Gallery into a new era was appointed in 1959. A young Roy Strong joined as an Assistant Keeper and later succeeded David Piper as Director in 1967. During Strong's directorship, a succession of great and memorable events took place, including Cecil Beaton's photographs in 1968 which attracted 75,000 visitors; the opening of a new department of film and photography; the commissioning of Annigoni to paint the Queen in 1970, a portrait seen by nearly 250,000 people during the first two months and the decision in 1972, to make a substantial loan of 16th & 17th century portraits to Montacute, a National Trust house in Somerset. The profile of the Gallery and its attendance figures rose significantly.

Roy Strong left to become Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1974 and was succeeded by John Hayes. Hayes embarked on a policy of commissioning portraits and established the BP Portrait Award (originally the Imperial Tobacco Award) which has become an extremely valuable part of the Gallery's public programme. During Hayes' Directorship (1974-1993) the Gallery explored many ways in which the existing buildings could be used more effectively, and these led to a number of changes to Christian's original building and the Duveen Wing. The double height Royal Landing of Christian's original design was suppressed with the insertion of a mezzanine level for Tudor portraits. In the late 1970s the octagonal rooms of the Duveen Wing were closed and converted for use as conservation and framing studios, but by 1982 they had been gutted to provide a single room for temporary exhibitions. The top floor galleries were refurbished in the late 1980s and at the end of the decade a striking revamp of the Ewan Christian entrance hall and staircase was commissioned from Roderick Gradidge and the decorator Christopher Boulter.

Most significantly the Gallery gave up a lease on part of Carlton House Terrace, housing archives, library and expanding photographic collection, so bringing a group of buildings across the road from the Duveen Wing on Orange Street into the possession of the Gallery. In 1988 a prestigious commission was awarded to Stanton Williams, with plans to house the archives and library, new twentieth-century galleries and a restaurant, as well as creating a piazza in front of Christian's elevation facing north up Charing Cross Road. Unfortunately the £30 million proposed development became too complex and costly, and the development was dropped. However, a decision was made to convert most of the ground floor of the Christian building, which had been previously filled with offices, into new galleries for the 20th century collection and to develop space in the Duveen Wing as a temporary exhibition gallery. The practice of John Miller & Partners was selected from a shortlist for the job. These galleries increased display space by thirty percent and provided improved facilities for Education and a ramp for disabled visitors were opened by the Queen in November 1993.

At the same time the buildings on the Orange Street site were converted into an administrative block, to house most of the Gallery offices, the conservation workshops, archive and library and photographic collection, with the archive and library and photographic collection moving back into central London. They had been in Lewisham after moving out from Carlton House Terrace in the late 1980s. Three adjacent buildings on Orange Street were converted by Alex Murray and Neil Morgan of Grimley J.R. Eve: Ciro's Club, a 1960s office block and an 1840s town house on the corner of Charing Cross Road. Ciro's Club was designed in 1915 with a sprung-floored dance hall and had been leased to the Royal Dental Hospital from 1956 until 1985. In 1996 Piers Gough of CZWG Architects remodelled the nineteenth and twentieth century galleries on the First Floor.

Charles Saumarez Smith was director of the National Portrait Gallery until 2002, having succeeded John Hayes in 1994 and was instrumental in advancing the National Portrait Gallery's Ondaatje Wing, designed by Dixon Jones Architects, which opened in May 2000. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a small number of private donors, particularly Dr Christopher Ondaatje, the new wing added a welcoming Main Hall, an IT Gallery where visitors can explore the Collection, a state-of-the-art lecture theatre, an improved book shop, two new floors of gallery space and the roof-top Portrait Restaurant with its amazing views across Trafalgar Square. Sandy Nairne became director in November 2002. Today, the Gallery offers a superb visitor experience with a high standard of public facilities and three floors of gallery space. As well as the Collection which is permanently on view, the Gallery stages six major exhibitions and more than ten special displays a year and runs a full and varied programme of events and an energetic learning and outreach programme. The National Portrait Gallery’s audience continues to increase with over 1.8 million visits in 2011.

The Duchess of Cambridge became Patron of the National Portrait Gallery in January 2012. The Duchess’s Patronage reflects her personal interests in the arts and will help the Gallery to continue to reach wider audiences and to encourage more young people to engage with the Collection. On Wednesday 8 February 2012 the Duchess made her first public visit to the Gallery to view the Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition.

To find out more about the Gallery’s history and its Collection, an illustrated book National Portrait Gallery Highlights, written by Charles Saumarez Smith with a foreword by Sandy Nairne, can be purchased from the Gallery’s online shop. Also available is the National Portrait Gallery Complete Illustrated Catalogue, a comprehensive listing of every painting, drawing, photograph and sculpture in the main Collection.

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William Shakespeare, associated with John Taylor, circa 1600-1610 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

William Shakespeare
associated with John Taylor
circa 1600-1610

Sir George Scharf, by Walter William Ouless, 1885 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir George Scharf
by Walter William Ouless
NPG 985

South Kensington Museum

Some Galleries at the South Kensington Museum
by Sir George Scharf, circa 1885

The entrance hall at the South Kensington Museum by Sir George Scharf, 1885

The entrance hall at the South Kensington Museum
by Sir George Scharf, 1885

Exterior of South Kensington Museum by Sir George Scharf, 1880

Exterior of South Kensington Museum
by Sir George Scharf, 1880

Sir George Scharf, by Sir George Scharf, 1869 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir George Scharf
by Sir George Scharf
NPG 5344

The National Portrait Gallery in the Bethnal Green Museum

The National Portrait Gallery in the Bethnal Green Museum

The plaque dedicated to William Henry Alexander

The plaque dedicated to William Henry Alexander

Christian's original design for the north front

Christian's original design for the north front

The Imperial staircase viewed from the Royal Gallery

The Imperial staircase viewed from the Royal Gallery

Joseph Duveen, Baron Duveen, by Walter Tittle, 1920s? - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Joseph Duveen, Baron Duveen
by Walter Tittle
NPG 2484

Late 20th Century Galleries

Late 20th Century Galleries

Early 20th Century Galleries. Remodelled by Piers Gough, 1996

Early 20th Century Galleries. Remodelled by Piers Gough, 1996

Early 20th Century Galleries. Remodelled by Piers Gough, 1996

Digital Space

Digital Space

Main Hall

Main Hall

The Duchess of Cambridge © Jorge Herrera

The Duchess of Cambridge
© Jorge Herrera