How to use a portrait as a historical source

Learning objectives

  1. Discover how to look closely at portraits, read clues and find evidence about the past.
  1. Analyse and research the different ways portraits are used to put across a particular message.
  1. Explore and compare portraits of significant women from history.
  • View larger image
    Claudia Jones,    by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images,    1962,    NPG x200196,    © Getty Images
Claudia Jones
by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images
modern bromide print, 1962
10 5/8 in. x 14 5/8 in. (270 mm x 372 mm) image size
NPG x200196
© Getty Images
  1. Who is this woman?
  1. What is she doing?
  1. Why is her photograph in the National Portrait Gallery?

Portraits are important and useful historical sources. At first glance, they can often appear to simply be a picture of a person (or people). But by looking closely, and asking analytical questions, they can provide important clues to help us unlock fascinating stories from the past.

Take a moment to think about what other questions you could ask about this portrait. What might we learn from it that can help our understanding of the past?

The fact that they have had their portrait made at all already tells us the person in a portrait is likely to be significant – or have been significant in the past. The fact that their portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection tells us that they have made an impact on British history or Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. in some way. But what else might portraits tell us?

Follow these steps to help you make the most of using portraits as a historical source.

Step 1: the big question

When using a portrait as a historical source, the first thing to think about is why you are using it in the first place.

Ask yourself:

  • What theme or topic am I studying?
  • What is the ‘big question’ – what am I trying to find out?

The big question (the enquiry) will sometimes have been set by your teacher, or you may create one of your own.

Here are some examples of themes and big questions:

  1. Tudors: how did Queen Elizabeth I use portraits to project an image of power and wealth?
  1. Women’s suffrage: what tactics did the suffragettes use in the struggle for women’s right to vote? How effective were they?
  1. Civil rights: what can portraits tell us about the lives of Black people and anti-racist campaigns in London in the 1960s?

It’s important to keep the big question in mind all the way through as you analyse a portrait. This will keep you focussed and help to make sure you use the portrait as a historical source, in a way that is relevant.

Step 2: looking closely

The next step to using a portrait as a historical source is to look at it closely and notice as many details as possible.

Portraits are made up of different elements that can give us clues about what it might be showing us. These include:

  • clothes
  • hairstyle
  • Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed.
  • Gesture A movement that you make with your hands, your head or your face to show a particular meaning.
  • expression
  • Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer.
  • objects and symbols
  • background
  • how the portrait is constructed
  • why it was made.

Looking closely at sources is an essential historical skill. It can take practice to become really good at it. It’s easy to miss details that can give us useful clues to the past.

Try this example.

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1588
38 1/2 in. x 28 1/2 in. (978 mm x 724 mm)
NPG 541
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Look very carefully at this portrait for at least a whole minute, including all four corners and around the edges. Write down your responses to these questions:

  1. Who can you see? Can you see anyone you recognise?
  1. What different details can you see?
  1. What are your first impressions of this portrait?

Now zoom in on the different sections of the portrait. Your notes might look something like this.

  1. How many details did you spot?
  1. Did you spot any extra details?

You might also like to try some of these activities to help you practice looking closely at portraits:

Looking closely: using the portrait label

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1588
38 1/2 in. x 28 1/2 in. (978 mm x 724 mm)
NPG 541
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The portrait label can give us more clues. The National Portrait Gallery’s labels include:

  • name of the person in the portrait
  • name of the artist
  • artistic Media The materials or forms that an artist uses. used
  • date
  • size.
    • The person in the portrait was a queen – Queen Elizabeth I.
    • It was painted by an unknown artist (the names of painters were often not recorded at this time).
    • It’s a large oil painting (only very wealthy people could afford to have large portraits painted at this time).
    • The portrait was made in about 1588.
  • Artist

    • A portrait made by an important artist could show that the person in the portrait was seen as being particularly significant.

    Size

    • A very large portrait could also show that the person was seen as significant.
    • A very small portrait tells us it was probably designed to carry around or collect as part of a set.

    Date

    • Knowing the date helps us place it in a particular period or time frame ( Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). or Second World War, for example).
    • A portrait made after the person’s lifetime might tell us they were still thought of as significant later.

    Artistic media

    • An oil painting might tell us it was made to hang in a private home or palace. It might have been made for personal use or to give guests a particular message.
    • A photograph made for a newspaper tells us the person or event was ‘newsworthy’ at the time and would have been seen by thousands of people.

Step 3: what can you infer?

Once you have looked closely, the next step is to think about what you can Infer To reach an opinion on the basis of information that is available. from all the details you have noticed in the portrait and the label – what do they suggest?

You can use any knowledge you already have about your theme to help you.

Ask yourself questions about the different portrait elements:

  • clothes
  • hairstyle
  • Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed.
  • Gesture A movement that you make with your hands, your head or your face to show a particular meaning.
  • expression
  • Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer.
  • objects and symbols
  • background
  • how the portrait is constructed.

It’s also important to think about who made the portrait and why it was made.

Try these examples.

Clothes and hairstyle: Queen Elizabeth I

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1588
  • They could tell us something about their:

    • Status The level of importance that is given to something.
    • power
    • Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs.
    • job
    • activity
    • Gender Identifying as male or female, especially with reference to social and cultural differences, rather than differences in biology.
    • values.

    They could also tell us about the historical period the portrait is showing or when the portrait was made.

    • Elizabeth I’s clothes are made from fine materials such as velvet, silk and lace. They are covered in jewels. Her hair is also covered in jewels and topped with feathers. These are expensive, luxury items that must have been brought from overseas. She is showing her wealth and her international connections.
    • Her padded dress makes her arms and shoulders appear much broader than they really are. Her waist looks impossibly small. Perhaps she is showing her strength as a leader while emphasising her femininity.
    • The portrait shows her with red hair – there is no grey or white in it. This is probably a wig. She wore wigs as she became older to appear youthful.
    • She is wearing a Ruff A wide stiff white collar with many folds in it, worn especially in the 1500s and 1600s. around her neck. Ruffs were popular from the mid 1500s until the early 1600s. This tells us the portrait is probably from the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). or early Stuart The royal family that ruled Scotland from 1371 to 1714 and England from 1603 to 1714. period. The label confirms that it’s Tudor.
    • Elizabeth’s clothes and hairstyle help to show her as a wealthy and strong Tudor queen, with important connections around the world.

Pose, gesture, expression and gaze

The Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. , expression and Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. of the person in a portrait, along with any gestures they might be making, can also give us useful clues to the past.

  • They could be:

    • sitting, standing, crouching
    • with their hands on the hips, in their pockets, by their side
    • with their legs crossed, apart, bent or straight
    • waving, clenching a fist or pointing towards something or someone.
    • Whether the portrait is relaxed or formal.
    • About the person’s Status The level of importance that is given to something. or power.
    • How they are feeling.
    • Whether they are thinking, talking, concentrating, distracted.
    • Is their mouth open or closed; smiling or downturned?
    • What about their eyebrows? Perhaps they are raised or frowning.
    • Where are they looking (their Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. ) – are they looking at us (or the artist), looking past or through us, looking to the side?


Look carefully at this portrait. Remember to look at the label and think about your first impressions.

  • Who can you see? Can you see anyone you recognise?
  • What different details can you see?
  • When was this portrait made?
  • What do you think is happening in the portrait?
  • View larger image
    Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square,    by Central Press,    October 1908,    NPG x131784,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square, by Central Press, October 1908
    • She is standing up straight.
    • The expression on her face looks lively and animated.  
    • Her mouth is open. She is in the middle of talking or shouting.
    • Her right arm is raised, and her hand is closed in a loose fist. Her hand is blurred in the photograph which gives us a sense of movement.
    • This all makes it look as though she is giving a rousing speech – she appears fully confident and not at all nervous in front of all those people.
    • Most people are looking in Pankhurst’s direction. Their eyes are mainly on her rather than each other or elsewhere.
    • She appears to have their attention. 

Objects and symbols

Objects and symbols are another useful way for a portrait to give us messages about the person shown. They can sometimes appear to be included randomly but are often placed carefully and deliberately.

  • They might tell us about a person’s:

    • likes or dislikes
    • job or hobbies
    • lifestyle, Status The level of importance that is given to something. or power
    • Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. .

    They can also carry specific meanings – perhaps to do with religion and other beliefs.


Look carefully at this portrait. Remember to look at the label and think about your first impressions:

  • Who can you see? Can you see anyone you recognise?
  • What different details can you see?
  • When was this portrait made?
  • What do you think is happening in the portrait?
  • View larger image
    Claudia Jones,    by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images,    1962,    NPG x200196,    © Getty Images
Claudia Jones, by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1962
    • Claudia Jones is shown sitting at a desk.  
    • There is a typewriter in front of her and she appears to be in the middle of a phone call. 
    • She is holding a pen in her hand, as if ready to write something down. 
    • Her typewriter is surrounded by paper and newspapers. 
    • The full name of the newspaper to her right is the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Caribbean News. The headline reads ‘What now for the West Indies?’  
    • It looks as though there are photographs stuck to the wall behind her.

Background

The background of a portrait can give us even more clues. As with objects and symbols, the background can appear random. But artists often choose the background of a portrait carefully to get a message across about the person in the portrait.

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1588
  • View larger image
    Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square,    by Central Press,    October 1908,    NPG x131784,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square, by Central Press, October 1908
  • View larger image
    Claudia Jones,    by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images,    1962,    NPG x200196,    © Getty Images
Claudia Jones, by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1962

What can we see in the background of these portraits? What might this tell us?

    • The background of the Elizabeth I portrait shows a fleet of ships. This could be to remind us of the important victory against Spain in the ‘ Spanish Armada A large group of armed Spanish ships sailing together. They were sent to attack England in 1588. ’ sea battle, and the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). ’ power at sea.
    • It also shows a stormy sky and a calm sky. Elizabeth is turned away from the stormy sky towards the calm sky – perhaps to show she has steered her country through difficult times.
    • The background of the Emmeline Pankhurst portrait shows a bronze lion, as well as some buildings and a road.
    • These are all features of Trafalgar Square in London and tell us where this photograph was taken (we also know this from the label).
    • The background of the Claudia Jones portrait shows photographs and other images stuck to the wall.
    • They look as though they are connected to her work as a journalist, and possibly struggles in other parts of the world, telling us about the stories and events she was interested in.

How has the portrait been constructed?

Thinking carefully about how portraits have been constructed can give us further important clues.

Look again at these portraits and their labels. Think about:

  • how the portrait was made
  • whether or not it might have been ‘staged’ to give a particular message.
  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1588
  • View larger image
    Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square,    by Central Press,    October 1908,    NPG x131784,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square, by Central Press, October 1908
  • View larger image
    Claudia Jones,    by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images,    1962,    NPG x200196,    © Getty Images
Claudia Jones, by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1962
    • The portrait of Elizabeth I was painted. This means careful decisions would have been made about what to include and what to leave out.
    • It’s unlikely that Elizabeth looked exactly like this in real life – in fact, she probably wasn’t even there when the portrait was painted.
    • The label tells us it was painted in about 1588. We know from other sources that Elizabeth had rotten teeth, greying hair and smallpox scars on her face by this time. These are not shown.
    • It is also unlikely that a fleet of ships could really be seen through the window.
    • We can Infer To reach an opinion on the basis of information that is available. the portrait has been staged to get a particular message across about Elizabeth’s wealth and power.
    • The label tells us the portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst is a photograph. The date (1908) tells us it was made long before the invention of editing tools like Photoshop (although photographers in the past did use some simple editing techniques). This means the artist (photographer) was recording what was actually there at the time.
    • The photographer could make decisions about which angle to take the photograph from, and what to include in the frame, but otherwise they had to simply photograph what they could see.
    • We can Infer To reach an opinion on the basis of information that is available. that the photographer has documented a real moment in time, capturing Pankhurst mid-speech, as she moves around the platform. This is known as a ‘documentary’ photograph.
    • Do you think the angle and framing make a difference to the message this portrait is giving us? What if it had been taken from the back of the crowd, for example …?
    • The label tells us the portrait of Claudia Jones is also a photograph.
    • In the photograph, the name of the newspaper and its headline are placed so they can be clearly seen. 
    • The photographer has framed the image to show Jones right next to a particular photograph on the wall.
    • She appears to be concentrating on a phone call and is not looking at the photographer. 
    • Do you think this photograph of Claudia Jones has been staged, or is it a real moment in time – a documentary photograph?
    • Staging doesn’t necessarily mean a portrait is ’fake’. It can simply be a useful way of getting a particular message across.

Why was it made?

Thinking about why a portrait was made helps us to make some final inferences. It may also lead on to further, useful questions relating to your ‘big question’ that can only be answered by other sources.

It is useful to think about:

  • Who was the portrait made for?
  • Who would have seen it?
  • Who was the main decision-maker behind the image – the artist, the person in the portrait, or someone else?
    • The portrait label tells us that Elizabeth I was a queen from the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). period.
    • It is likely that someone in a powerful position like this would have had a lot of influence over how she was shown in her portraits.
    • The artist is not named. This makes it even more likely that Elizabeth (or her advisors) made the important decisions about what the portrait should show.
    • Thinking about all the evidence we have gathered so far, we can Infer To reach an opinion on the basis of information that is available. it was probably made to show her people that she was a wealthy and powerful leader.
    • The label tells us the photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst was taken by a ‘press’ photographer.
    • She would have had no control over how the photographer showed her in the photograph. But she may have known the press would be there – she may have even wanted them to be there.
    • We can Infer To reach an opinion on the basis of information that is available. this photograph was taken so that the newspaper could show people around the country that this event had taken place.
    • We can’t tell just by looking at this portrait who it was made for and why it was made.
    • It might have been made to show readers of the West Indian Gazette that she was working hard on their behalf.
    • We know from the label that the photograph was made in 1962. Perhaps it was made to show a positive image of a Black woman living and working in Britain, in response to some of the racism that many Black people had to endure at the time.

Who’s missing?

It’s also important to think about whose stories or experiences might not have been recorded through portraits. This can also lead you to further research and other sources. For example:

  • During Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). times (and other periods in history) only the very wealthiest people would have had their portraits made. How might you find out more about ordinary people living in Tudor times?
  • Throughout British history, the lives of women, people of colour and other groups were often not recorded through portraits. The majority of British portraits from the past are of wealthy, able-bodied, white men. What impression might this give you of a historical period or a historical theme?
  • People’s stories have also been missing from British museums, galleries and history books. The National Portrait Gallery, historians and other organisations are now trying to change this to help improve our understanding of the past.

Step 4: how does the portrait help us answer the big question?

The final step is to reflect on everything you have seen and inferred and decide what this tells you in relation to your big question.

Try looking again at the portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst, who was a Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. and leading Campaigner A person who leads or takes part in a campaign, especially one for social or political change. for ‘votes for women’.

  • View larger image
    Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square,    by Central Press,    October 1908,    NPG x131784,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square
by Central Press
bromide press print, October 1908
7 in. x 8 7/8 in. (177 mm x 226 mm) image size
NPG x131784
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
  • We have seen the portrait shows us:

    • Emmeline Pankhurst gave a speech in Trafalgar Square, in the middle of London. She – and other Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. – probably gave speeches in other public places too.
    • The speech attracted a large crowd, raising the profile of the Campaign A series of planned activities that are intended to achieve a particular social, commercial or political aim. in London.
    • The people in the crowd seem to be listening carefully – this could be because they supported the suffragettes, or they may have simply been curious.
    • The photograph was taken by a press photographer. It was probably seen in newspapers by thousands of people. This would have helped to raise the profile of the campaign across Britain. The press may or may not have supported the suffragettes’ campaign.

    We can also see:

    • Both men and women in the crowd. Their hats and clothes show us they are from different classes and different walks of life. We can Infer To reach an opinion on the basis of information that is available. the suffragettes impacted on a diverse range of people.
    • Police officers at the front of the crowd. We can infer that events like this might have sometimes got out of hand – or have possibly become violent. This tells us that the Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. campaign had probably already become well known through speeches like this, or other tactics used to raise awareness for the campaign.

Step 5: beyond the portrait – further research

One portrait (or source of any kind) will rarely give us all the answers to a big historical question.

Thinking about what it doesn’t tell you can be a useful way of deciding where your research will take you next. It can be useful to think about what you would ask the person (or people) in the portrait if you could interview them.

  • View larger image
    Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square,    by Central Press,    October 1908,    NPG x131784,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square, by Central Press, October 1908
    • How did the crowd know they should gather in Trafalgar Square on that date to listen to Emmeline Pankhurst?
    • How many people were there?
    • Where did they come from?
    • What was Emmeline Pankhurst saying to the crowd?
    • Why were the police there?
    • What happened afterwards?
    • What impact did this event have on the struggle for women’s right to vote?

Now look again at the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and Claudia Jones.

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1588
  • View larger image
    Claudia Jones,    by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images,    1962,    NPG x200196,    © Getty Images
Claudia Jones, by FGP/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1962

How do you think the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I helps to answer the big question:

  • How did Elizabeth I use portraits to project an image of power and wealth?

How do you think the portrait of Claudia Jones helps to answer the big question:

  • What can portraits tell us about the lives of Black people and anti-racist Campaign A series of planned activities that are intended to achieve a particular social, commercial or political aim. in London in the 1960s?

What further questions do you have?

Find out more

    • Elizabeth I was queen from 1558 until 1603. She was the last of the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). Monarch A person who rules a country, for example a king or a queen. .
    • This portrait shows Elizabeth at the height of her powers. Britain was poised and ready to become one of the most powerful nations in the world.
    • It was painted to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada A large group of armed Spanish ships sailing together. They were sent to attack England in 1588. , when Spain tried to invade in 1588, and to inspire awe and wonder in the people who viewed it.
    • A number of versions of this portrait were made. They may have been given as official gifts to foreign monarchs or favourite members of the royal Court The official place where kings and queens live and work. , such as Francis Drake.
    • Emmeline Pankhurst was a Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. leader. The portrait shows her giving a speech in Trafalgar Square, London. She is trying to gather support for the ‘votes for women’ Campaign A series of planned activities that are intended to achieve a particular social, commercial or political aim. .
    • It is likely she would have known a press photographer might be at this event and that her image would appear in a newspaper. She may have even made sure the press knew about it, to help raise the profile of the campaign.
    • Pankhurst is asking the crowd to join her in a ‘rush’ on the House of Commons The part of Parliament whose members, MPs, are elected by the people of the country. , two days later. The plan was for thousands of people to push their way in and demand votes for women from the Prime Minister. Pankhurst was arrested before the ‘rush’ could take place and sent to Holloway Prison.
    • Claudia Jones was an anti-racist Campaigner A person who leads or takes part in a campaign, especially one for social or political change. . In this portrait, she is shown working in her job as editor of the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first commercial Black newspaper. She went on to help found the Notting Hill Carnival. 
    • This photograph was probably used to illustrate an article about Jones, her work or the community she represented. It may have appeared in her own newspaper. As a newspaper editor herself, she would have known how photographs can be used to get a message across or tell a story.


What questions do you have about the portraits you have seen?

You could find out more by:

  • looking at other portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s online Collection
  • using our online resources
  • visiting the National Portrait Gallery.