News Release: Famous authors create new identities for mystery portraits

21 November 2011

For the first time in over 50 years, a group of portraits of mystery figures from the 16th and 17th Centuries will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Acclaimed writers Alexander McCall Smith, Joanna Trollope, John Banville, Julian Fellowes, Minette Walters, Sarah Singleton, Terry Pratchett and Tracy Chevalier have contributed short imaginative stories about the portraits to help to bring the sitters to life. Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People opens at the National Portrait Gallery from 3 December 2011 and runs until the 22 July 2012.

Purchased by the National Portrait Gallery between 1858 and 1971 the fourteen portraits in Imagined Lives were originally thought to represent famous people, such as Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Over time the identity of the sitters has either been lost, disproved or disputed, resulting in the portraits being either removed from display or lent to other collections.

In response to the portraits, eight internationally renowned authors have written imagined lives of the mystery sitters available to read in a new publication.  The authors have invented imaginary biographies and character sketches exploring who these men and women might have been and why were they painted. With fictional letters, diaries, mini-biographies and memoirs, Imagined Lives creates fictional stories about these sitters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Imagined Lives was originally conceived for and shown at Montacute House, Somerset, in 2010 as a collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust and the University of Bristol. The display will now be seen in London at the National Portrait Gallery for the first time accompanied by a new story by Alexander McCall Smith and a new publication. Research undertaken by History of Art MA students at the University of Bristol, working with Dr Tatiana String and supervised by the Gallery’s 16th Century Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper, led to a clearer understanding of the past of these portraits. This research, along with conservation work has meant that more evidence is now available about the possible identity of the sitters.

The character sketches and imaginary biographies by the authors provide new ways of looking at these mystery portraits. The authors have responded to what can be seen in each portrait, picking up on details of the costume and pose in intriguing ways.

Alexander McCall Smith has imagined an alternative life – as a body double for Mary, Queen of Scots – for a beautiful young woman depicted in a portrait once identified as the Scottish queen. In a story entitled Rosy Tracy Chevalier has written about a portrait of a handsome young man with a flushed complexion as the object of homosexual desire. 

The crime writer Minette Walters has written a poignant letter from the perspective of the wife of a man shown in a portrait, which brims with despair at her husband’s extravagance. The author and scriptwriter Julian Fellowes has created a subtle biography (written in the style of a traditional biographical entry in a dictionary) about a resourceful woman whose husband was executed in the reign of Henry VIII.  

Sarah Singleton has written about the adventures of a spice merchant and amateur musician struggling to make his way in the world despite his illegitimate status. Joanna Trollope has written a touching tale about the offer of a marriage proposal in the form of a letter from the sitter’s intended bride. 

In a complete change of tone, the science fiction writer Sir Terry Pratchett has written an amusing tale about an explorer who presented Elizabeth I with a skunk. John Banville has seen in the features of a man laying upon his death bed the face of an admired officer serving with Cromwell’s New Model Army.


A fully-illustrated National Portrait Gallery publication containing information on the portraits on display together with all the stories will be available for £7.99. The 96 page book includes an essay by Dr Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, exploring the challenges associated with the identification of sitters in Tudor portraits and includes new research on the featured portraits.


  • Imagined Lives was originally displayed at Montacute House in spring 2010. It was the second curatorial collaboration between MA students from the University of Bristol and the National Portrait Gallery after the success of the previous display, On the Nature of Women in 2008. The event has provided them with valuable experience in conducting original research at the Gallery’s Heinz Archive & Library, and in all the processes of staging a Gallery display, which involves the writing of text and captions.
  • The Gallery is committed to making the national collection of British portraits available around the country through an active national programme of events, partnerships and loaned works. Collection works from the 16th to the 19th century are displayed in period country house contexts. Montacute House in Somerset (National Trust) displays works from the 16-17th century, Beningbrough Hall in North Yorkshire (National Trust) displays works from the 18th Century and Bodelwyddan Castle in Denbighshire displays 19th Century works. All three partners have a programme of changing displays and exhibitions, events and activities produced in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery. Partnerships have been in place since the late1970s.
  • Also available is a fully-illustrated National Portrait Gallery publication A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, which focuses on 16th and 17th century portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, Montacute House, and other National Trust properties. Written by the Gallery’s Chief Curator, Dr Tarnya Cooper, and with a foreword by Lady Antonia Fraser, the book is in paperback and priced £6.99.    

For further press information please contact: Eleanor Macnair , Press Office, National Portrait Gallery, Tel 020 7321 6620 (not for publication) Email  

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