George Frideric Handel by Thomas Hudson

(NPG 3970)

    George Frideric Handel,    by Thomas Hudson,    1756,    NPG 3970,    © National Portrait Gallery, London George Frideric Handel, by Thomas Hudson, 1756, NPG 3970, © National Portrait Gallery, London

This portrait of the composer George Frederick Handel, painted after he had turned blind, has been on almost continuous display since its purchase in 1968. It was first offered to the Gallery at a price of £10,000. Despite this prohibitively high price tag, the acquisition was considered a priority because of Handel’s standing as a national figurehead in the history of British music. The new director Roy Strong made the unprecedented decision to the mount the Gallery’s first public appeal to secure the portrait for the nation.

The appeal culminated with a special performance of one of Handel’s best-known works, the Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall. This featured the internationally renowned classical singer Joan Sutherland and conductor Richard Bonynge, and was attended by the Queen’s cousin Princess Alexandra, who later wrote to the Gallery apologising for her late arrival due to congested traffic. The portrait was acquired with the proceeds for £9,450.

A leaflet with black and red printed text for the Handel Commemoration Concert in aid of the National Portrait Gallery's Handel Appeal: Messiah with Joan Sutherland
Leaflet for the Handel Commemoration Concert given at the Royal Albert Hall on 10th July 1968 (NPG Archive NPG46/40/67)
Two sheets of a hand-written letter starting 'Dear Lord Kenyon' and signed 'Yours ever, Alexandra'
Letter from H.R.H. Princess Alexandra to Lord Kenyon, Chairman of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees, [July 1968] (NPG Archive NPG46/40/67) Reproduced by kind permission of H.R.H. Princess Alexandra.

Despite this success, there were some outspoken objections to the appeal itself: What’s On In London acerbically recalled how in 1742 Handel had devoted the proceeds of the first performance of the Messiah to charitable causes, and noted the appalling conditions in which young offenders were being kept in 1968. However, an anonymous donation and the enthusiastic support of the Arts Minister, enabled the Gallery to host an event for 400 children from Outer London Boroughs, thereby honouring Handel’s original charitable endeavours.

This was to be the first of a number of successful public appeals on the part of the Gallery. Portraits acquired through public appeal more recently include Sir Antony Van Dyck’s last self-portrait (NPG 6987), Hans Eworth’s portrait of Mary Neville, Lady Dacre and Gregory Fiennes, Baron Dacre (NPG 6855), Albert Charles Challen’s portrait of Mary Seacole (NPG 6856), and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (NPG 7032).

A cutting from a newspaper with the headline Peter Wolfe facing the music
Press cutting from What’s On In London, 19th July 1968 (NPG Archive NPG46/40/67)