Our story

The National Portrait Gallery holds the greatest collection of portraits in the world

The Gallery was founded in 1856 with the aim of collecting portraits of ‘the most eminent persons in British history’. The original Trustees agreed ‘to look at the celebrity of the person represented rather than the merit of the artist’ but also took the view that achievement would sometimes be tempered by human fallibility accepting that ‘great faults and errors’ should not exclude individuals from inclusion.

The role remains the same today - telling the story of the nation through the people who shape it - although we have broadened our understanding of achievement to reflect the diversity and dynamism of contemporary culture.

As we look back at our history, we can see that different ages have celebrated different accomplishments and values and now our Collection provides a unique way to understand the past through people and the context they lived in. Today we also aim tell the story of those who may not have had their portrait made, especially in the time before widespread access to photography, and to explore their experiences and influence on the nation.

Another important development has been the increasing importance given to art and art history, leading to the Gallery’s role as place to learn about the art of portraiture, promoting an appreciation of the art form, championing artists from all over the world and encouraging creativity. Our collection of over 215,000 portraits and our world-class exhibition programme now showcase the work of some of the world’s greatest artists as well as the very best in contemporary art.