Guide to the Portrait Explorer

User-Friendly Touchscreens

Portrait Explorer is used and enjoyed by many different visitors to the National Portrait Gallery. Anyone can explore information and images related to the Gallery's Collections through one of 10 touchscreens. No computer skills are required.

Exploring Collections

A contents screen indicates the 9 main ways Gallery visitors can explore the Collections. Visitors can find out about the people associated with portraits – sitters and artists – by searching for sitters and artists by name, by profession or by association. Visitors can also study some portraits in focus, explore types of portraits, be guided by a timeline, or listen to video interviews.

Sitters and Artists

Portrait Explorer is very intuitive, and simple prompts help visitors use it. Searching for information about a sitter or artist is as simple as using an onscreen keyboard to enter the letters of a surname. As visitors type the name of a person they are interested in they are informed how many possible matches have been found.

Selecting a Sitter or Artist

Touching the 'Show People' button reveals names of sitters and artists matching the information a visitor has entered. The 'Back' button takes visitors to the previous screen they were viewing, where they can modify the name they have entered or type in a different one. Touching the name of a sitter or artist leads visitors to more information about them.

Exploring Sitter and Artist Information

When visitors select a sitter or artist, biographical information about them is displayed, along with thumbnail images of portraits. Many biographies include highlighted names, which if touched lead visitors to entries on others represented in the Gallery's Collections. A 'More' button appears when there is more information available than can fit on 1 screen.

Exploring Portraits

When visitors touch a thumbnail they are taken to a screen where a portrait can be explored in more detail. A full portrait image is presented on screen as large as possible, and buttons or tabs to the side of the image allow visitors to uncover different paths of interest.

Portrait Magnification

Visitors can touch the ‘Magnify’ tab to view a portrait in great detail. Only a portion of a magnified image is shown at any time. Visitors navigate a magnified image by using directional arrows, dragging a highlighting frame over a thumbnail, or touching a section of the thumbnail.

Portrait Information

Most images of well-known portraits represented on Portrait Explorer are accompanied by captions written by Gallery curators.

Concise Dictionary of National Biography

In addition to Gallery-written biographies of sitters and artists, visitors can access detailed biographies on over 7,000 sitters and artists represented on Portrait Explorer, reproduced from the Concise Dictionary of National Biography, with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Additional Information

On some portrait images visitors can touch tabs which allow the exploration of different aspects of interest: Companion portraits can be seen side-by-side; medals can be viewed front-and-back; preparatory studies and sketches can be seen in relation to a finished portrait; and related portraits can be easily accessed.

Archival Documents

Portrait Explorer makes available to the public hundreds of archival documents not normally on display to the public. These include correspondence to the Gallery from sitters and artists and their descendants, with transcriptions, providing visitors with insights into the production of particular portraits.

Who's Who

Visitors are able to identify who’s who in thousands of group portrait image by: touching a sitter’s head or touching a sitter’s name, in which case a highlighting frame is superimposed over the sitter’s head, and an enlarged detail of the head appears. Touching a button below the detail takes a visitor to the entry for that sitter.

Exploring Collections Further

There are a number of alternatives to exploring the Gallery’s Collections. For instance, the Gallery holds sets of portraits related to each other, so, for example, a visitor can see images of all caricatures of sitters represented in Vanity Fair in the second half of the 19th Century or all the Gallery’s silhouettes or death masks.

Categories and Groupings

Visitors can also search for sitters and artists linked together in a number of ways – a shared profession (e.g. Author) or membership of a recognised group (e.g. Bloomsbury).

Timeline Exploration

Visitors can explore British history through a timeline divided into periods corresponding to the reigns of British monarchs from the 15th to 21st centuries.

Visitors are made aware of major events that occurred during a reign, and can see images of portraits from each particular period.

Personalised Portrait Tours

If a portrait is on display in the Gallery, an 'Add to Tour' button appears on screen. Touching it lets a visitor identify the location of a portrait and create a tour of portraits they’d like to see. Tours can be printed in colour, free, with each portrait’s location indicated on them.

Black-and-White and Colour Prints

Visitors can print free black-and-white copies of any of 55,000 portraits on the Portrait Explorer for which the Gallery controls the copyright, or print labels to allow the easy purchase of digital colour prints from the Gallery’s Gift Shop, using the Portrait Printer.

Portraits in Focus

Some portraits in the Gallery's Collections have received special treatment on Portrait Explorer. Some of the strengths of interactive media have been exploited to provide insights into the portraits that can’t easily be provided through other means.

One of the most unusual portraits in the Gallery's Collection is an anamorphic oil on panel portrait of King Edward VI by William Scrots. An animation shows how the distorted image of the king is visually corrected when the portrait is viewed from an oblique angle, through the portrait’s original viewing device. The viewing device has been reconstructed onscreen, and the animation shows how it would originally have moved in and out of slots in the back of the portrait.

The Gallery’s oil on copper portrait of King Charles I by an unknown miniaturist features 17 semi-transparent mica overlays. The overlays are too fragile to be handled, but when originally placed one-by-one over the top of the portrait they recounted different episodes of the king’s imprisonment and execution. Animations are now used to allow visitors to virtually place the overlays on top of the portrait.

The Gallery’s photograph of Christine Keeler on an Arne Jacobsen chair is one of the best-known photographs of the 20th century. A focus on contact sheets allows visitors to see all shots taken by Lewis Morley during the shoot that produced the iconic image.

Video Interviews

The Gallery actively commissions portraits, and the video interviews feature allows visitors learn directly from their creators how some portraits in the Gallery's contemporary collection were realised.

Visitors can select an artist, photographer or sitter of interest, access an interview with them, or listen to answers to individual questions.