Over a year ago, we closed our doors to undergo a major transformation. We’re excited to share with you an update on our Inspiring People redevelopment works, as well as some discoveries made during construction, and some changes you can look forward to seeing at the Gallery when it reopens in 2023.
We’ll be welcoming you back to our Gallery with a more open and accessible visitor entrance and forecourt, that’ll be on the North Façade of the building. Three windows are being altered to become doors that’ll lead to a new entrance hall and, in the video below, you can hear from our Director Dr. Nicholas Cullinan and Architect Jamie Fobert on what this new entrance will look like…
You can also take a glimpse below at the installation of the pedestrian bridge that will connect this new entrance and forecourt, named Ross Place.
Inspiring People will also transform the quality of education provision at the Gallery through the creation of a new Learning Centre. This much-improved Centre will increase the Gallery’s learning spaces from one studio to three, with each studio having specialist equipment and breakout space. This will offer a better learning experience for schools, families, young people, community groups and adult learners.
During the construction work at the Gallery, we’ve also made some exciting discoveries, including some original architectural details. We uncovered windows which brought in new light and openness to the space, as we look at ways of highlighting these architectural features in our new Gallery.
These architectural details weren’t the only discovery as part of our Inspiring People project. In order for the redevelopment to take place, we started by decanting our Collection. This enabled our Conservation team to inspect and survey all displayed portraits before they were placed into storage, or went on loan. It was during this process that our Conservators discovered more about the life of some of the portraits in our Collection.
James Anthony Froude by Sir George Reid, 1881 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Alexandra Gent, a Conservator in our team, explains: “Removing each portrait from display presented a rare opportunity to see so many portraits up close at once. The Conservation team inspected and photographed both the front and back of each framed painting, as they packed them ready for transportation. Whilst the portrait itself is most important, a lot can be learnt by looking at the reverse of artworks. As well as helping us to understand how a painting was made, examining the back of a picture and its frame can often reveal information about its history through the presence of inscriptions and exhibition labels.”
While moving the Collection, it was found that the back of one particular painting had more information attached than we would typically be expected. When we took the small portrait of James Anthony Froude, who was a historian born in 1818, out of the display case in the Victorian galleries, three hand-written letters were visible, attached to the reverse of the painting.
We asked Gent about the history of these letters, who shared: “It transpired that these letters had been sent by the artist George Reid to the man who had commissioned him to make the portrait of Froude, John Skelton. Skelton moved in the same social circles as Froude and wrote essays, reviews and historical papers using the pen-name of Shirley, including ‘The Table Talk of Shirley’ (1895).
Reid was one of the leading Scottish portrait artists at the time, working in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and occasionally London, and would later become President of the Royal Scottish Academy. The letters, attached to the back of the painting, were sent from Reid to Skelton in Edinburgh and showed that the artist stayed in London when Froude sat for his portrait.”
In these letters, first dated 29 January 1881, Reid writes to Skelton to accept the commission and suggest he makes a cabinet size painting in oils instead of watercolour. Skelton replied saying he will require two or three sittings from Froude in order to create the portrait. The letters continue, with each one discussing the portrait and, in the final letter on the 8 May 1881, Reid reports that the portrait has been finished and asks Skelton where he would like it to be sent.
Upon making this discovery, the letters were examined by a paper conservator. Although they obscure the back of the painting, it was decided that they should be left in place, rather than risk damage by removing them.
The frame itself also has an important part to play in the story of this painting, as Gent notes: “The portrait has a gilded frame with enriched fluted decoration — one of four standard styles that Reid routinely used for his portraits. While the letters had already been given some protection by covering them with a layer of thin polyester film, the back of the frame has now been adapted so that they are encased behind a solid sealed backing board. This will ensure that they continue to be preserved, while new digital photographs have been taken of the letters so that the information remains accessible.”