Commissioning portraits

The National Portrait Gallery commissions a small number of portraits every year as part of its commitment to collecting portraits of those who have made an important contribution to British history and culture. Over the last thirty years, it has commissioned some 180 portrait paintings, sculptures, drawings and works in mixed media as well as many photographs. These portraits now form the backbone of the contemporary displays.

Choosing the subject

The National Portrait Gallery’s Collection is by necessity selective rather than comprehensive, and this applies even more so to the commissioning programme which is intended to supplement rather than replace other forms of collecting. Decisions on subjects for commissions are made annually by the Gallery Trustees as a body, with a view to selecting a small number of individuals from a longer list.

Suggestions for future commissions may be sent to showgate@npg.org.uk or left on Visitor Comment forms at the Information Desk at the Gallery. In making suggestions it is advisable to check whether the Gallery already has a portrait by checking this website under search the collection.

Working with the artist


The choice of artist for a commission is naturally very important and the responsibility falls to the Director working with the Contemporary Curator. Current practice is to meet with the prospective sitter to discuss the choice of artist, perhaps stimulated by an exploration of portraits on display at the Gallery. The Gallery has consistently been willing to take risks, whether by encouraging young artists or by approaching more established artists who may not undertake portrait commissions. By commissioning portraits in a range of media and from a variety of good artists, the Gallery hopes to encourage portraiture and to keep the representation of the human figure very much alive.

Creating the portrait


Once artist and sitter have met and the scale and nature of a commission have been agreed, the Gallery will usually do no more than act as an occasional observer to the process, encouraging, on occasion influencing, or facilitating where there are difficulties.

Find out more about the process from individual case studies:

A.S. Byatt: an abstract portrait

Read how individual artists went about their commissions: 


Tom Phillip's Iris Murdoch
Humphrey Ocean's Tony Benn

Ross Wilson's Derek Walcott

Recent commissioned portraits:

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Dame Zaha Hadid
by Michael Craig-Martin
2008
NPG 6840

David Beckham ('David')
by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Sam Taylor-Wood)
2004
NPG 6661

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