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Archive Journeys

For the first time, the National Portrait Gallery is starting to provide online access to parts of its fascinating Archive. These journeys focus on three remarkable periods in the Gallery’s history: the life and work of the first Director, Sir George Scharf, its wartime activities and digital 60s.

The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) (detail) by Patrick Branwell Brontë, NPG 1725 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Acquisition Histories: Acquiring Portraits for the National Collection

“Authentic likenesses of celebrated individuals” – as suggested in 1856 by Sir Charles Eastlake in a letter to the Gallery’s first Chairman, Lord Stanhope - should be prime considerations for building a national collection of portraits. The Gallery’s collecting policy has always sought to address these requirements, even if the meanings of authenticity and celebrity have changed over time, and the institution’s object files (known as Registered Packets) contain fascinating stories about the process of acquiring portraits for the collection. As part of a curatorial research project undertaken in 2014, a number of these stories have been investigated and are now revealed.

Take a look at how the Gallery have acquired portraits for the Collection

George Frederic Watts (detail) by and published by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, after Frank Dudman, for Joseph Parkin Mayall photogravure, NPG Ax27825 © National Portrait Gallery, London

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904): A Victorian Michelangelo

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), British painter and sculptor was internationally renowned in the Victorian era for his ‘Hall of Fame’ portraits of the contemporary elite and for his remarkable symbolist paintings. Assembled by his second wife, Mary Seton Watts, the Watts Archive of correspondence reflects the life and career of this great artist: his art practice and exhibitions, his close friends and patrons, and the places he resided.

Take a look at the life and art of this great Victorian

Sir George Scharf (detail) by John James Fisher, NPG Ax13957 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir George Scharf (1820-1895): Father of the National Portrait Gallery and Victorian Socialite

Sir George Scharf was the Gallery’s first Director. Appointed in 1857, shortly after the institution was founded, he held the post for nearly 40 years. He worked almost single handedly to establish the Gallery we know today. Scharf’s extensive archive includes diaries, sketchbooks and a wealth of other material. It presents a unique resource for both the study of portraits and portraiture and British life in the Victorian period.

Take a glimpse into the life and work of this remarkable man

The National Portrait Gallery at War (1914-1918 and 1939-1945): How the Gallery kept calm and carried on in wartime

During both the First and Second World Wars the Gallery, because of its central location, was vulnerable to enemy attack. To ensure the safety of the Collection, the portraits were evacuated. The buildings suffered damage from air-raids. Staff made every effort to maintain business as usual in exceptional circumstances. Documents and photographs in the National Portrait Gallery’s Archive bring this extraordinary period to life.

Take a behind-the-scenes look at the Gallery’s wartime experiences

Poster advertising  Cecil Beaton Portraits 1928-1968 exhibition, 1968

Digital ‘60s: Digitising a decade of defining history at the National Portrait Gallery – a CQP project

The 1960s brought about a revolution at the National Portrait Gallery. From its first major temporary exhibition, to the changing of the ‘10 year rule’, and with the appointment of Director Roy Strong, the Gallery was watered from new and exciting directions and bloomed beautifully over the course of the decade. We have selected some particularly interesting material from the Gallery Archive to accompany this journey through the ‘60s.

Take a look into the defining history of Digital '60s


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