Commissioning portraits

The National Portrait Gallery commissions about six portraits a 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 160 portrait paintings, sculptures, drawings and works in mixed media, about five or six a year, as well as many photographs. These portraits now form the backbone of the contemporary displays.

Commissioning chronology

Choosing the subject
The National Portrait Gallery 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 about half a dozen individuals from a longer list.

The National Portrait Gallery’s recent commissioned portraits include:

Julia Donaldson by Peter Monkman
Dame Maggie Smith by James Lloyd
Dame Kelly Holmes by Craig Wylie
HRH The Duchess of Cambridge by Paul Emsley
James Lovelock by Michael Gaskell
Shami Chakrabarti by Gillian Wearing

Suggestions for future commissions may be sent to 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.

The commissioning process

Working with the artist
The choice of artist for a commission is naturally very important. If there is a prior connection with the sitter this can be helpful. 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.

Interviews with photographers
Photograph commissions
The annual BP Portrait Award

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


Iris Murdoch, by Tom Phillips, 1984-1986 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Iris Murdoch
by Tom Phillips
NPG 5921

Derek Walcott (

Derek Walcott ('The Sun Poet')
by Ross Wilson
NPG 6400