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Icons Trail

Icons Trail

Icons Trail

The 20th century was a time of extraordinary change. One hundred years of progress which shaped not only the society of the day, but generations to come. Behind this progress were incredible individuals who chose to defy convention, and in doing so changed the world forever.

ICONS is an eight-part series on BBC TWO exploring the achievements and legacies of some of the greatest figures of the 20th Century.  Seven well-known advocates will each front an hour-long documentary arguing the case for four people from a different field of human endeavour:  Leaders, Explorers, Scientists, Entertainers, Sports Stars, Artists & Writers and Activists. 

At the end of each documentary the public will be asked to vote for their favourite.  The Icon who wins the public vote in each of the seven categories will be put through to a live final, which will see all of the celebrity advocates return to fight their Icon's case - the public will then vote again for the person they believe was the greatest figure of the 20th Century.

The series and voting starts on the 8 January on BBC TWO and the live grand final is on 5 February.  

The National Portrait Gallery has partnered with the BBC to create this special trail. In the Gallery you will find portraits of a key sitter from each theme. This booklet also contains information about all the men and women featured in the BBC ICONS series, co-produced with The Open University.

Download the trail Visit BBC Icons

Sports Stars

Having spent much of my career in sport, I need no convincing of its power to inspire, unite and entertain. Sport may be humankind’s great trivial invention, designed to bring joy as well as promote exercise but it has a power far beyond the field of play. Indeed, the role of a few sporting superstars has had a huge impact on the history of the 20th century.

These icons may have secured our attention with breath-taking sporting performances, which live long in the memory but they also became symbols of something greater. Each of these legends transcended their sport, and leave a legacy greater than their career statistics. They each represent triumph, not just over their competitors, but over marginalisation, prejudice and bigotry.

Again and again, the 20th century saw sporting figures lead the way, and where they trod a path to inclusion and acceptance – society often followed.

Clare Balding

Watch the Sports Stars programme here

Tanni Grey-Thompson

Debbie Jevans; Tanni Grey-Thompson by Brian Griffin, 2010 © Brian Griffin
On display in Room 16


Pelé Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images, 1970 © Getty Images

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali by Rex Coleman, 1966 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King (née Moffitt) by Mary McCartney, 2008 © Mary McCartney / National Portrait Gallery, London

Artists and Writers

The 20th Century marks a huge shift in Art History, where traditional art forms were continuously interrogated and up-rooted in a quest for meaning. Artists reflected the evolving emotional, psychological, and political landscape of a tumultuous century, in new and profound ways.

The century’s greatest artists and writers were unafraid to tackle big concepts, from mental health to war, from terror to fame – the things which society found the hardest to process, often proved the most fertile ground.

Each of these Icons were revolutionary practitioners of their art form, they were game-changers who disrupted the status quo, and gave birth to entirely new schools of work. Their achievements left their mark on the world and the time, and their legacies live on today, offering us a portrait of the past.

Lily Cole

Watch the Artists and Writers programme here

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912
On display in Room 30

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock by Brenard Press Ltd, 1955

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso by Cecil Beaton, 1965 © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s London

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol by John Swannell, 1979 © John Swannell / Camera Press


The 20th Century was the century of activism - a time when, across huge swathes of the world, power moved from the hands of the few, to the many. This was a hundred years that saw the spark of democracy emerge and then spread like wildfire and these great men and women fanned the flames.

Each of these Icons stands out for different reasons, each championed a different cause but I think what’s fascinating is how much they had in common. They were all preoccupied by societal iniquity and improving the lives of millions, giving voice to those that had gone largely unheard. Each of them, in their own way, fought for freedom and came up with new ways of bringing their cause to wider attention. They fought tirelessly for what they believed in, but perhaps more importantly, acted like guiding lights for their supporters. Their names have become synonymous with not just their causes but social activism in general.

These people didn’t just change the world - they inspired others to do the same.

Sanjeev Bhaskar

Watch the Activists programme here

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square by Central Press, 1908
On display in the Room 31 showcase

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi after Jacob Kramer, 1932 © William Roberts Society
On display in Room 31

Helen Keller

Helen Keller Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images, 1950 © Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images, 1964 © Getty Images


What’s fascinating about the story of exploration in the 20th Century is how it evolves; we start off with people flag planting in the name of empire, and over the decades - as technology becomes more advanced - the scale of their discoveries gets bigger and bigger, as human kind tries to conquer unknown lands, the oceans - even the skies.

Each of these Icons showed immense bravery and courage – but they also held a deep seated passion for their subject. Far from merely being a race to be first to the biggest prizes, I think some of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned from their explorations are about appreciating the world that’s all around us, and how vital it is to preserve it.

It’s a journey from conquest to understanding, something epitomised by each of these Icons, and that, for me, is what makes them so compelling.

Dermot O’Leary

Watch the Explorers programme here

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Henry Shackleton by Reginald Grenville Eves, 1921
On display in Room 31

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong Photo by NASA/Newsmakers, 1969 © Getty Images

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell by Flora Russell, c. 1890 © estate of Flora Russell

Jane Goodall

Dame (Valerie) Jane Goodall (née Morris-Goodall) by Ken Regan, circa 1989


The story of science in the 20th Century is a subject so enormous it’s almost hard to comprehend. This is a century that begins without computers, antibiotics or aeroplanes and ends with countless innovations, from brain surgery to mobile phones and the internet – the list of human achievements makes the mind literally boggle. Behind each extraordinary discovery and invention were dedicated scientists, who were brave enough to throw off established thinking.

These four Icons each joined fields of study that already existed, but made discoveries or breakthroughs that sent shockwaves through the world of science and beyond. What their lives tell us, is that scientists neither live, nor work, in vacuums. These aren’t dusty, theoretical figures; these are firebrands, trailblazers, pioneers.

These are people willing to make huge sacrifices, and suffer enormous personal costs for their work. They gave more than just their imaginations, they gave their souls, sometimes even their lives, to the advancement of science.

Chris Packham

Watch the Scientists programme here

Alan Turing

Alan Turing by Elliott & Fry, 1951
On display in Room 31

Marie Curie

Marie Curie by Pacific & Atlantic Photos Ltd, 1923

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein by Walter Benington, for Elliott & Fry, 1928

Tu Youyou

Tu Youyou by Alexander Mahmoud, 2015 © Nobel Media AB


Leaders, the people who every day take decisions that affect millions of people, are often far from straight forward, and almost never universally revered. Yet, it is they who stand out as the people who hold the fate of nations in their hands, and who dictate the course of history. During the 20th Century, leaders had much to contend with – wars, economic crises and humanitarian plights landed at the feet of these icons, and each answered the call in different ways.

I think what’s interesting about 20th Century leaders in particular, is how the evolution in communication technology affected not only what we saw and heard of the people in charge, but what we wanted from them. Our rulers went from men of empire, determined to maintain an established world order – to people with newly found freedoms, equally determined to establish a new way of doing things – one which represented not only the leaders, but the people they led.

Sir Trevor McDonald

Watch the Leaders programme here

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela by Ian Homer Walters, 2008
On display in Room 32

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill by Sir William Orpen, 1916, Lent by Trustees of the Churchill Chattels Trust, 2012
On display in Room 31

Franklin D Roosevelt

Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference Distributed by United States Army Signal Corps, 1945

Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Party Conference, Brighton 1982 by Paul Brason, 1982-1985
On display in Room 32


Entertainers are the true thread through our history. Entertainers make people come together; breathe at the same time; laugh, cry - together. Entertainers may not be leaders, but we still lead the way. Entertainment in the 20th Century saw the world go from vaudeville clowns to Space Oddities, and everything in between, but most importantly, entertainers are people we care about; singers, actors, comedians – these are people that we hold in our hearts. We line up to see them at the movie theatre or spend our hard-earned cash on their songs, not out of a cold appreciation for their technical skills, but because we love them and believe they speak for us.

For me it’s that fact that makes Entertainers icons in the truest sense – they are made by us, they belong to us – and they in turn make us laugh, make us cry, and inspire us, offering us ways to re-imagine our world.

Kathleen Turner

Watch the Entertainers programme here

David Bowie

David Bowie by Stephen Finer, 1994 © Stephen Finer/National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 32

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe by Cecil Beaton, 1956 © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s London

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin Published by J. Millhoff & Co Ltd, c. 1930

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, c. 1939 © Getty Images


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