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.

Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1540–1640


Pub. date: 6 May 2010
Introductory Gallery price £5 (RRP £6.99)
ISBN: 9781855144279
Format: 148 x 210mm
Extent: 48 pages
Illustrations: 13 full colour
Binding: Paperback
Category: Biographical fiction

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out of print

See Imagined Lives: Portraits of unknown people

Read extracts and download the Imagined Lives podcast

John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope, Minette Walters

Seven internationally acclaimed authors have invented imaginary biographies and character sketches based on thirteen identified portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. Who are these men and women, why were they painted, and why do they now find themselves in the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery? With fictional letters, diaries, mini-biographies and memoirs, Imagined Lives creates vivid stories about these unknown sitters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In an exciting new research project the National Portrait Gallery has worked with the University of Bristol to discover the identity of mystery sitters in the Collection. To highlight this research, the Gallery has commissioned some of Britain and Ireland's leading writers to explore the evidence and to create playful stories about the lives of these unknown Tudor and Stuart sitters.

The imaginary biographies in this volume provide new ways of looking at portraits in which the subject is unknown. Seven contemporary authors with international reputations have responded imaginatively to what can be seen in the portrait, exploring details of costume and pose in intriguing ways. Together they have created an imaginative range of letters, diaries, mini-biographies and brief memoirs, in which they explore some of the reasons why these people might have had their portrait painted. Each writer brings the sitter vividly to life, using facial expressions and other clues from the paintings, and often developing, moving stories for their invented characters.


John Banville is a novelist who won the Man Booker Prize for The Sea (2005).
Tracy Chevalier is a historical novelist best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Julian Fellowes is a novelist, screenwriter and actor who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gosford Park.
Terry Pratchett has sold more than 55 million copies of his science-fiction and fantasy novels worldwide. He was the best-selling UK author of the 1990s.
Sarah Singleton is an author of young adult fantasy fiction who won the Booktrust Teenage Prize for her novel Century in 2005.
Joanna Trollope is the author of eleven bestselling novels, several of which have been adapted for television.
Minette Walters is the award-winning author of thirteen crime novels, including The Ice House and The Sculptress.