History explainer: how to use a portrait as a historical source

What can portraits reveal to us? How can portraits unlock stories from the past?

In this video, we demonstrate how to analyse portraits using fascinating examples from British history. We give you handy hints and things to look out for to help you discover useful information, make historical inferences, or kick-start an enquiry.


  • How to use a portrait as a historical source.

    Portraits are important and useful historical sources. At first glance, they can appear to be simply an image of a person or people, but when you look closely, they can reveal important evidence, which can help us unlock fascinating stories from the past.

    The first step to analysing a portrait is to try and notice as many details as possible.

    Look closely at this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. As you explore, ask yourself, what are your first impressions? What is the mood or feeling of the portraits? What different details do you notice? Why do you think they may have been included?

    There are some key elements to look out for, including clothing and hairstyle, objects and symbols, pose and expression, and the background or setting.

    We can use these elements like a step-by-step guide to help us think about what we can infer from a portrait.

    By looking at Elizabeth’s clothes, we can see they are made from fine materials such as velvets, silk, and lace. They are also covered in jewels and gold thread. Her hair is probably a wig. Elizabeth wore wigs as she became older to help make her look younger. It’s covered in jewels and topped with feathers.

    These were all expensive luxury items from all over the world, and with a height of fashion at the time.

    The background of the portrait can tell us even more. We can see a fleet of ships reminding us of Britain’s power at sea and victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth used this portrait to show she was a strong, powerful, and globally connected queen in a world dominated by men.

    Even portraits that seem very simple at first glance can give us important evidence about the past.

    Look closely at this portrait of Olaudah Equiano. What details can you see?

    Equiano is wearing smart clothes and holding a book. This portrait shows him as a typical English gentleman of the late 1700s. The book tells us that he was educated and hints at the fact he was a writer.

    His name is written underneath the portrait: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassar the African. Although he was renamed Gustavus Vassar when he was enslaved, his African name was Olaudah Equiano.

    The writing at the bottom says: ‘Published March 1 1789 by G. Vassar’. Equiano was one of the first Black people to publish a book in Europe. It describes his experiences of being enslaved and became an important part of the campaign to abolish the transatlantic slave trade in Britain.

    Looking at objects in a portrait is another useful way to find out more.

    Look closely at this portrait of Claudia Jones. We can see she’s sitting at a desk with a typewriter in front of her, holding a pen and a phone. Her typewriter is surrounded by newspapers, and she looks to be in the middle of a phone call. We can infer that the objects are connected to her work. We can also infer that this photograph was taken at a time before computers and mobile phones were commonly used.

    This photograph was taken in 1962, when lots of people were migrating to Britain from the Caribbean as part of the ‘Windrush generation’. Claudia Jones was a journalist and anti-racism campaigner. She was also one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival, which is held every summer and celebrates Caribbean culture in London.

    The pose, expression and gaze in a portrait can also provide us with useful clues.

    Looking closely at this portrait, we can see it shows a woman on a raised platform. She’s standing up straight, her right arm is raised and her hand is closed in a fist. She looks like she's giving a speech. The expression on her face looks lively, animated and determined. Her gaze is focussed out towards the crowd, and she appears to have their attention.

    The hats and clothes give us clues about the people in the crowd. We can see the crowd is mainly men, including sailors and police officers, but there are also women and some older children.

    It’s also a good idea to look at the caption for further clues. The caption for this portrait tells us this is Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square in London. It also tells us it’s a photograph taken in 1908, which was during the women's suffrage campaign.

    Emmeline Pankhurst was a leading suffragette, so we can infer that this speech was part of the ‘votes for women’ campaign. The photograph was taken by Central Press, which tells us it was intended for a newspaper.

    It is also useful to think about why a portrait was made or who it was made for. Old oil paintings were often made to show power, strength and wealth. They would have been displayed in a private home or palace.

    This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was painted to celebrate the famous defeats of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It shows Elizabeth at her most powerful and aimed to inspire awe and wonder in all who saw it.

    Some photographs, like the portraits of Claudia Jones and Emmeline Pankhurst, were made for newspapers. This tells us the person or event was newsworthy at the time. These portraits would have probably been seen by many thousands of people.

    The portrait of Olaudah Equiano is an engraving that was included in his book. It sold thousands of copies in Britain and beyond.

    One portrait, or historical source, is often just the beginning of your historical inquiry. It can be useful to reflect on everything you've seen and inferred and then think about what further questions you have, like ‘whose stories might be missing?’

    Questioning further can help you take the next steps in your historical enquiry. The National Portrait Gallery Collection includes over 200,000 portraits. Why not try looking closely at some of these and seeing what you can find out about the past?

Learning objectives

  1. Discover how to look closely at portraits, read clues and find evidence about the past.
  1. Analyse the different ways portraits can be used to put across a particular message.
  1. Consider the value of portraits as historical sources within an enquiry.

Watch and discuss

    • Clothing and hairstyle
    • Objects and symbols
    • Pose and expression
    • Background or setting
  • Always look at the caption for useful information such as:

    • the name of the person in the portrait
    • the name of the person who made the portrait
    • the date the portrait was made.
    • Understanding how the portrait was made and who the portrait was made for can help you discover more about the person, and why their portrait was made. 
    • For example, old oil paintings were often made for rich people to show their power, strength and wealth. 
    • Some photographs were made for newspapers. This tells us the person or event was newsworthy at the time.
    • Throughout history, the lives of women, ethnic minorities and other groups were often not recorded through portraits.
    • It is important to remember that, like all sources, portraits give us a particular point of view, but not the whole story. 
    • Think about other sources you could use to broaden your understanding of an event or period.