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 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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Sir Tim Berners-Lee
by Sean Henry
NPG 6996

Simon Weston
by Nicola Jane ('Nicky') Philipps
NPG 6984

Shami Chakrabarti
by Gillian Wearing
NPG 6923

Dame Kelly Holmes
by Craig Wylie
NPG 6944

Sir Andrew John Wiles
by Rupert Alexander
NPG 6994

Maggie Smith
by James Lloyd
NPG 6955

Paul Nurse ('Paul')
by Jason Brooks
NPG 6837

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; Prince Harry
by Nicola Jane ('Nicky') Philipps
NPG 6876

Steve Redgrave
by Dryden Goodwin
NPG 6767

Julia Catherine Donaldson
by Peter Monkman
NPG 6960

Judi Dench
by Alessandro Raho
NPG 6671

Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood
by Juergen Teller
NPG P1980

Ken Livingstone
by Andrew Tift
NPG 6983

Dame Zaha Hadid
by Michael Craig-Martin
NPG 6840

James Ephraim Lovelock
by Michael Gaskell
NPG 6928

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

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