The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Search over 215,000 works, 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th Century to the present day.

Advanced Collection search

Publishing policy

Revised May 2011


The National Portrait Gallery holds the foremost collections of British portraiture in the world. Publishing supports the Gallery’s mission ‘To promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media …’.
In recent years the Gallery has developed its commitment to publishing high-quality catalogues and books. Everything we publish reflects the Gallery and must therefore be of the highest standard. All our publications are thoroughly researched, written, edited, designed and produced, and, wherever possible, feature a high proportion of material from the Gallery’s own collections. Books are manufactured using sustainable materials where it is economic to do so.
The backdrop to our publishing programme is a fast-changing commercial landscape, in which publishing technologies are becoming ever more efficient but the traditional marketplace for books outside the Gallery is moving away from the high street, while consumers are turning increasingly to digital providers for text-based content. The Gallery is adept at identifying outlets and partnerships to help build viable print runs and we will be exploring appropriate ways in which to publish future content in digital formats, including e-books, apps and tablets.

Irrespective of the likely audience and format or the predicted sales, each publication takes a significant commitment from the Gallery’s Publications section in terms of editorial resources. Since the amount of editorial time available each year is finite, our selection of titles to publish is critical.

The Purpose of Publishing

Publications enable the National Portrait Gallery to:

  • encourage enjoyment and appreciation of the Collection, exhibitions, displays and public programme
  • generate revenue
  • document knowledge, research and ideas, particularly for specialist audiences
  • extend the Gallery’s audiences
  • promote an understanding and appreciation of the art of portraiture
  • promote an understanding of British history through portraits
  • record the activity and history of the institution

The Range of Publishing

1. Guides to the collections

We publish a family of Guides for visitors to the Gallery:

  • Guide to the National Portrait Gallery (£5)
  • Guide to Tudor & Jacobean Portraits (£6.99)
  • Guide to Victorian & Edwardian Portraits (£7.99)
  • Guide to Contemporary Portraits (£6.99
  • The National Portrait Gallery – a large-format souvenir book (£20)
  • I-SPY National Portrait Gallery (£2.50)

2. Exhibition catalogues and books

It is our policy to explore the possibility of producing a catalogue or book for every significant exhibition the Gallery holds, and furthermore to consider the publishing opportunities created by our programme of displays. When we commission an accompanying publication, it is our policy to produce catalogues to the highest possible standard within an agreed budget, to experiment with formats, and to provide material at a range of price-points; for example the small format BP catalogue (£8.99) and the photographic exhibition catalogue E.O.Hoppé Portraits (£30).

3. General books and educational material

Trade books are commissioned either to develop new approaches to the Collection or to present popular aspects of British portraiture and history. The Gallery’s ‘Insights’ series and Kings & Queens exemplify this approach. Where appropriate, we publish materials for schools and families, including postcard packs and posters, but we would like to do more.

4. Collection catalogues and other research

The Gallery’s policy is to try to publish up-to-date information and associated research related to the collections. Given the expense, this can only be undertaken in book form when private or institutional subsidy is available. The Complete Illustrated Catalogue (2004), the Mid-Georgian Portraits catalogue(2004) and the Later Stuart Portraits catalogue (2009), while very expensive and time-consuming to produce, demonstrate the Gallery’s commitment to research. Future cataloguing is likely to be published in electronic formats and online, as is the case with the Later Victorian Portraits catalogue (2010).

5. Paper products, including postcards and posters

The Gallery endeavours to make available a wide range of paper souvenirs, such as postcard books and greeting cards, featuring important and popular portraits from the Collection and temporary exhibitions. Paper products offer higher margins than books when produced in sufficient quantities and manufactured in the Far East. 

General Issues

1. Audiences

Publications are aimed at all Gallery visitors, the general public and key specialist and specific-interest audiences:

  • visitors to the main collection, displays and exhibitions
  • specialists and professionals (academics, teachers and students, historians, art historians, biographers, artists, designers, photographers etc
  • international and ‘virtual’ visitors
  • the general public

2. The economic model for the Publications section

The publishing programme aims to balance the more profitable catalogues and trade books against catalogues and more specialist books that require subsidy. Therefore, depending on the popularity of exhibitions (and, more specifically, revenue from the associated catalogues), there will not be a break-even budget in all years.

It is always difficult to determine the number of more specialist books and catalogues in which to invest. However, for each year a budget needs to be set that reflects the commercial viability of the core exhibition-related publications. While a particular catalogue may be deemed essential in terms of the wider role of the Gallery, it is acknowledged that, because of the subject and/or content, it may only sell to a specialised core audience and might therefore make a loss. A further consideration is that publications that might make a loss to the Publications section can still return a profit for the Gallery once publishing and retail income is combined (referred to as ‘group profit’).
The general policy of the Gallery is to publish most titles itself. Collaborative publications, such as the Complete Illustrated Catalogue, are not always straightforward. Recent collaborations with the National Trust (Guide to Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2008; Guide to Victorian & Edwardian Portraits, 2011) are a more successful model, with wider benefits for both organisations. The future development of specialist books, or books for which the Gallery cannot justify an economic print run, might involve collaboration with specialist publishers that have effective distribution to particular markets.

The Publications section has been enterprising in recent years in selling books to exhibition tour venues, co-editions and serial rights. The ability to make these sales is maximised when an exhibition tours. Our policy is to sell the Gallery’s edition of a book to the tour venue, and where possible to sell a trade edition to a co-publisher. This policy aims to maximise revenue for the Gallery.

3. Deciding which publications to produce each year

Each publication should meet some or all of the following criteria in order to be commissioned:

  • relate to the Gallery’s core mission of promoting an interest in history and portraiture
  • contain a substantial number of works from the Collection
  • either be tied to an exhibition or represent works from the collection in a new way, or be tied into promotion within the media (such as a portraiture-related television series)

When considering catalogues or books to accompany an exhibition or display the criteria on which we base our decision include the following considerations:

  • the subject matter of the exhibition and whether it is paying or free
  • the expected number of visitors and likely conversion rate (visitors:buyers)
  • the likely demand in the UK and overseas trade, special sales (e.g. sponsors), sales through the Gallery’s shops after the exhibition
  • the likelihood of at least one international co-edition
  • the annual publishing programme and budget, as well as the ‘group profit’ once additional retail income is combined.

The overall programme is reviewed by the Publishing Board, which meets three times a year, and includes one Trustee, the Director and at least two senior Gallery colleagues with a close interest in the publishing programme. The purpose of the Board is to help deliver the publishing policy and to guide the overall direction of the publishing programme.
We have good relations with a number of industry experts who are available to provide advice on current project issues or on new ideas or opportunities.
Rights in titles published by overseas publishers are also considered for acquisition by the Gallery as its UK or English language publisher.

4. Marketing

The Gallery needs to be realistic about how competitive it can be within a very tough retail environment for illustrated books. In the high street book sales and margins are under intense pressure, while consumers now have a larger choice of media available to them both online and in other electronic formats.
Irrespective of available marketing resources, in a given year only a few Gallery publications will break out from their core-readership of exhibition visitors and cross over to the wider public. Publications that do find a wider market will do so either because they have popular content (such as Mario Testino and Vanity Fair Portraits) or be related to television programmes and thereby benefit from powerful broadcast exposure (such as Great Britons and The World’s Most Photographed).
The Gallery therefore has to make the best use of its programme of displays and exhibitions to promote the relevant titles and to choose adroitly where to place its very limited marketing resources.

5. Future policy development

The Gallery has clear and consistent indicators of success, in which the publishing programme is judged against several criteria. For example, we accept that there is a small, well-defined audience for many titles and that their success should not be measured against a solely commercial return (many of our books have won prizes, including some that required subsidy).
The Gallery may wish to review the level of internal ‘subsidy’ it provides each year to support a number of loss-making publications that are required to accompany the exhibition and research programmes. One model favoured by some institutions is the licensing of content (i.e. text and/or images) to third-party publishers. However, while reducing some overhead costs, financial advantages are not guaranteed – some subsidy in the form of guaranteed purchases are common – and there is a risk associated with loss of quality control and dilution of brand.
Specific areas for development in the future may include children’s and educational books, but the greatest opportunity (and challenge) lies in electronic publishing. This rapidly growing market now includes print-on-demand books, e-books, apps, DVDs and pay-per-download pdfs. At the time of reviewing this policy the Gallery has published one app through the Learning and Digital departments. Issues for digital publishing such as rights clearance, colour reproduction and start-up costs are obstacles that are likely to require considerable attention before the policy is due for renewal in 2016.