Collections Development Policy

1. Introduction

The National Portrait Gallery is the national museum responsible for the history of British Portraiture. Under the terms of the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act the Trustees maintain ‘a collection of portraits in all media of the most eminent persons in British history, of other works of art relevant to portraiture and of documents relating to those portraits and other works of art’. This clause in the 1992 Act reflects the historic division of the collection into a ‘Primary Collection’ and a ‘Reference Collection’.  The concept of a Primary Collection of paintings, sculpture, miniatures and a Reference Collection or study collection of prints was established immediately following the Gallery's foundation in 1856. These collections were later extended to include photographs. The collections fulfil the enduring function:

  • to act as a national focus for the study and understanding of portraits and portraiture.

The Primary Collection contains more than 12,000 portraits. Of these about 4,000 are paintings, sculptures, miniatures and some photographs and works in digital media, approaching 60% of which are regularly displayed, with further works regularly requested for loan. The reference collection contains portraits, predominantly printed portraits and a smaller collection of drawings and sketchbooks, together with silhouettes and caricatures, which have been acquired primarily for research and documentary purposes and to provide a context for the Gallery’s Primary Collection. The reference collection is primarily housed in the Archive & Library and contains approximately 85,000 works on paper. In addition, there are almost 7,000 light-sensitive works on paper, shown on a rotating basis of about 300 items a year to avoid excessive light exposure and thus to minimise deterioration and fading. The Gallery also holds an important Photographs Collection which contains in the region of 250,000 original photographic prints and negatives.

2. Scope

This policy covers the Primary Collection works of the National Portrait Gallery and in principal the Library, Archive and Photographic Collections and forms part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Collections Management framework which consists of:

  • Collections Information and Access Policy
  • Collections Care and Conservation Policy
  • Collections Development Policy

In compliance with the published Accreditation Guidance provided by Arts Council England, the delivery body for Accreditation in the United Kingdom

An ‘Acquisitions and Disposals’ policy sits alongside this framework (See Appendix 1 for reference) and sets out our formal collecting policy. This is due to be revised in 2014-15.

Subsidiary policies guide collecting of library and archival resources

3. Principles

The Gallery acquires portraits from the life in all media, whether by purchase, bequest or gift, of the most eminent persons in British history from the earliest times to the present day. Since 1980 the Gallery has also commissioned contemporary portraits. Acquisitions for the Primary Collection are subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees which meets four times a year.

4. Acquisitions Process

4.1 Acquisition of Primary Collection objects

4.1.1   Collections administration

All new offers are logged by the Acquisition Registrar in the collections database system (Mimsy) and in a handwritten ‘Offers Register’An acknowledgement is sent to offerers either by the relevant Curator or the Acquisition Registrar and offerers are informed at the outset of timescales and kept informed on progress throughout the process. Gallery offer files are prepared by the Acquisition Registrar using checklists to ensure that all the relevant documents are in place which assists the Curators in the decision making process. The process is tracked on a collections impact assessment form, (Appendix 2) which is passed to the Chief Curator. The gallery keeps all offer and acquisition information in electronic format on the collections database system (Mimsy).  In addition, the original hand written Offer and Acquisition Registers are maintained, these are stored in an access controlled area in the Archives.

4.1.2   Curatorial Assessment

All offers that  fall within the Gallery’s Acquisition Policy (See Appendix 1 National Portrait Gallery Acquisition and Disposal Policy) are taken to a fortnightly Curatorial meeting.   Each offer is considered on a case by case basis, taking into account eligibility and suitability for the collection, quality, authenticity, historic importance, value to the Gallery and current resources and offers are discussed over several consecutive Curatorial Meetings. At this stage, potentially acceptable offers are researched and physically examined by relevant curators (and where necessary by conservators).  The objects agreed for potential acquisition at the Curatorial meeting are then researched in further depth by period curators and collections staff (including an investigation of provenance, the assurance of good title and copyright agreements). The Acquisition Registrar works closely with the relevant Curators and other staff to ensure that all the correct documentation is in place and that the Gallery is compliant with the relevant government legislation. Where relevant, questions concerning copyright are also explored at this stage.

4.1.3   Trustees Approval

Full documentation is created by curatorial staff and presented in writing and in person by relevant period curators at the quarterly Trustees meetings. Trustees have the right of veto on the acquisition of Primary Collection works. The handwritten ‘Acquisition Register’ is completed and the collections database system and updated after each Trustees Meeting as required. Copyright and Deed of Transfer information is collated and archived.

4.1.4   Timing

On average the successful completion of offers take up to four months from the time of entry into the Gallery to being accessioned after Trustees approval. However, on occasion longer timescales may apply, particularly where complex provenance or good title checks are required.

4.2       Acquisition of Reference collection and Photographic collection items

Stages 1 & 2 of the above process are followed, but these works do not require Trustee approval, acquisition authority having been delegated to the Director. Typically reference and photographic collection material have financial values well below £1000.

5.         Commissioning Process

Curators and Trustees each prepare a list of potential sitters for further discussion at one of the quarterly Trustee meetings. The selection takes into account under-represented areas of the Collection.  Once the commission is agreed the Director writes to the potential sitter. The National Portrait Gallery will select a shortlist of artists which are discussed with the sitter. Once the artist is agreed a preliminary meeting is arranged with the sitter and artist usually at the Gallery.   At this stage the issue of rights are discussed with the artist and a draft agreement shown to them.  On completion of the portrait it is viewed by the Director and Contemporary Curator and then taken to a Curatorial Meeting for approval before being taken forward to the Trustees.  Once approved by the Trustees a final agreement assigning all rights to the Gallery, aside from moral rights, should be signed by the artist.

Commissions are generally funded from the Gallery’s acquisitions budget or external funding bodies. A £5000 commission, funded by BP, is awarded to the first prize winner of the annual BP Award. JP Morgan also continues to support a series of commissions primarily, though not exclusively, focusing on women of achievement. Other supporters and collaborators past and present include Taylor Wessing (for photographic commissions), the Art Fund, the BBC, Channel Four, the Jerwood Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

6.         Themes and priorities for future collecting

The National Portrait Gallery takes the lead in acquiring portraits of national significance, based on the principal of the authenticity of the likeness of the sitter. The principal focus of collecting remains the representation of relevant sitters produced in their lifetime, rather than the work of individual artists or in a specific media.

The Gallery regularly acquires important works for the historic collection where there are key gaps in our holdings, particularly in the representation of women and BAME sitters. Portraits that enhance the understanding of the practice of portraiture across time and provide insights into production methods, media, patronage, display and appreciation of British sitters are also selectively acquired. This type of material includes caricature, printed imagery, cartoons, and works in specific or unique media which serve to document the development of artistic practices.

A key area of collection development is 20th and 21st century portraiture in all media. The Gallery is particularly interested to acquire works which reflect the diversity of British history and culture and highlight achievement in a wide range of different fields, from sporting success, entertainment, science, the arts, business, politics and intellectual life. The Gallery’s collecting ambitions include a desire to reflect and respond to social and technological changes and it continues to explore the acquisition and commission of portraits in non-traditional media. We also continue to collect rare vintage photographic material and modern and contemporary photographs allowing the development of national resource representing individuals who have contributed to British national life and where relevant popular culture.

As a world class research centre for the study of portraiture, the National Portrait Gallery is also keen to continue to selectively acquire archival material that elucidates artistic practice in relation to British portraiture in all periods and all media, including artist’s sketchbooks and workshop documentation and to maintain a library resource to support the research needs at the Gallery.

7.         Priorities for rationalisation and dispersal

See Acquisitions and Disposals policy.


Director responsible for mapping and directing Collections Development in dialogue with the Chief Curator

Chief Curator responsible for maintaining an overview of Collections Development, in dialogue with the Curatorial team

Curatorial Team responsible for advising on the collecting undertaken within their particular period or media (i.e. photographical collections).

Director of Exhibitions and Collections responsible for providing a strategic overview of Collections Development in relation to Exhibitions and Collections

Head of Collection Services responsible for providing Collections Management support as required to enable the development of the Collection

Acquisition Registrar responsible for providing Registration support as required to enable the development of the Collection

Head of Archives and Library responsible for providing strategic overview of library, archive and reference collections

Intellectual Property Officer to be involved in any discussions regarding copyright and Intellectual Property


This policy will be reviewed every three years (in line with the Arts Council England Accreditation Scheme)

Appendix 1: National Portrait Gallery Acquisition and Disposal Policy (due to be reviewed in 2013, will not be undertaken in 2014/15)

Appendix 2:  Collections Impact Assessment Form

Tarnya Cooper Chief Curator

January 2014