Introduction to the Primary Collection

The Primary Collection contains more than 11,000 portraits. Of these about 4,000 are paintings, sculptures and miniatures, approaching 60% of which are regularly displayed, with the intention to show a further selection. 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 a Reference Collection and a Photographs Collection.

The concept of a Primary Collection of paintings, sculpture, miniatures, etc., 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 two enduring functions:

  • to display portraits of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture.
  • to act as a national focus for the study and understanding of portraits and portraiture.

Collecting policy

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 portraits. Acquisitions are subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees which meets four times a year. The Gallery's formal collecting policy is set out in the Collections Development Policy.


Portraits are displayed at more than one location:

Portraits on display at the National Portrait Gallery

All portraits on display both nationally and internationally

All the portraits in the Primary Collection are accessible on the website in the Advanced search. Those wishing to see paintings and other portraits in the Primary Collection not on display, or to consult the records of the collection, should contact the Collections Manager in writing. Normally items not on display can readily be made available for viewing.

Information on the collection 

Further information can be obtained from a number of sources:

Current developments

We have an active policy of adding to the collection and of making it more widely available. The Complete Illustrated Catalogue, containing summary information with illustrations of the whole collection was published in 2004. New detailed catalogues by John Ingamells, Mid-Georgian Portraits, covering the late eighteenth-century collection, and Later Stuart Portraits, covering the period 1685-1714, have been published, researched with the generous support of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. A further programme of digitisation and making portraits available on the Internet and at the Gallery on the Portrait Explorer is in progress. A further collection catalogue, devoted to later Victorian portraits is published on the Gallery's website at Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue.