Room 31: A National Portrait: Britain 1919-59

See the portraits currently on display in Room 31 here

Room 31

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

By the end of this era Britain had won two World Wars, lost an Empire, and found new confidence in a changing society. This was a period of experimentation and far-reaching political, social and cultural change. It was marked by a strong sense of social awareness and concern, and a spirit of public service which affected all walks of life.

The events of 1914-18 and internecine feuding led to the demise of the Liberal Party and the emergence of the Labour Party as a party of government. The consolidation of the Trades Union movement, the extension of the suffrage, the emancipation of women, and progressive taxation were milestones of political and social reform against which major events - the General Strike, the Depression, the Abdication, the rise of Fascism and the Second World War - were played out. In the arts, the arrival of Modernism in architecture and radical changes in visual and aural perception fundamentally affected painting, sculpture and music, and a flavour of this can be detected in the portraits on display.

Here the story takes the visitor from 1919, along the left-hand wall to the Second World War (1939-45) at the apex of the gallery, then back up the right hand side to the 1950s.

Britain and the World 1939-59

The Second World War 1939-45
By June 1940 Hitler's forces had occupied Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, Italy had entered the War on the German side, France had capitulated, and Britain's defeated army had been evacuated from Dunkirk. With the country facing invasion, Chamberlain resigned. In these desperate circumstances Britain found in Winston Churchill a leader whose courage, resolve and oratory were to unite the nation.

Victory in the Battle of Britain (1940) staved off invasion, but the tide turned when Germany attacked the Soviet Union (1941), and Japanese aircraft destroyed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor (1941). This brought the two most powerful neutral countries into the war on the Allies' side. Montgomery's victory over Rommel's Panzer divisions at El Alamein in Egypt in October 1942 prepared the way for Allied landings in Italy.

'D-Day' (6 June 1944) began the invasion of France that led to the German surrender on 7 May 1945. In August 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan's immediate surrender.

The End of Empire
In 1947 Britain relinquished her mandate in Palestine to the United Nations, and India, Pakistan and Burma emerged from British control. The Suez Crisis of 1956, when President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal and confronted France and Britain, exposed the limitations of post-war European power. Harold Macmillan acknowledged the passing of Empire in his 'winds of change' speech in Cape Town in 1958. The next decade would see a transition to independence in East and West Africa.