When the NPG was first established in 1856, certain rules were put in place regarding the attitude to acquisitions. These mainly ensured the Gallery’s collection was concerned with British history, as opposed to art, and that the status of the sitter was valued over the artistic character of a picture.
Among the criteria was the specific rule – ‘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 meant visitors wouldn’t see contemporary figures – whether actors, scientists or politicians – unless they’d been dead for ten years. The rise of television, pop music and celebrity culture in the 1960s meant there were considerably more personalities available that were considered iconic in British history, and the rules of acquisitions soon changed to reflect this.
Following the success of the Beaton exhibition, it was apparent that living sitters drew in the crowds. The large scale display of photographic material had proven a success after many had doubts, and this paved the way for living sitters to be accepted into the Gallery’s permanent collection.
Extract from Minutes of the Board of Trustees’ meeting, 16 Oct 1969, showing the changing of the all important rule.