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.

The National Portrait was founded in 1856 to collect portraits of the Nation’s great men and women and continues to add to its collections by purchase, gift, bequest and, since 1980, by commissioning portraits.   Acquisitions are subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees which meets four times a year and are guided by a formal collecting policy which is set out in the Collections Development policy.  

“Authentic likenesses of celebrated individuals” – as suggested in 1856 by Sir Charles Eastlake in a letter to the Gallery’s first Chairman, Lord Stanhope - continue to be prime considerations, even if the meanings of authenticity and celebrity have changed.   The collecting policy has had to contend with these and other challenges over the years and the Gallery’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.

The Registered Packets are housed in the Heinz Archive and Library and have been catalogued.  You can search the Archive Catalogue for these records and view them in person by making an appointment.