Icons Trail

Icons Trail: Discover the people who shaped the 20th century. With insights from Clare Balding, Lily Cold, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Dermot O'Leary, Chris Packham, Sir Trevor MacDonald and Kathleen Turner. In association with BBC Two.

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 shown on BBC TWO in 2019, exploring the achievements and legacies of some of the greatest figures of the 20th century. Seven well-known advocates 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 and Writers, and Activists.

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

The National Portrait Gallery partnered with the BBC to create this special trail. In the Gallery you will find portraits of a key sitter from each theme.

Visit BBC Icons page

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
    Debbie Jevans; Tanni Grey-Thompson,    by Brian Griffin,    27 February 2010,    NPG P1710,    © Brian Griffin Debbie Jevans; Tanni Grey-Thompson, by Brian Griffin, 27 February 2010
    Muhammad Ali,    by Rex Coleman, for  Baron Studios,    23 May 1966,    NPG x125764,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Muhammad Ali, by Rex Coleman, for Baron Studios, 23 May 1966
    Billie Jean King (née Moffitt),    by Mary McCartney,    2008,    NPG P1357,    © Mary McCartney / National Portrait Gallery, London Billie Jean King (née Moffitt), by Mary McCartney, 2008

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
    Virginia Woolf,    by Vanessa Bell,    1912,    NPG 5933,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Virginia Woolf, by Vanessa Bell, 1912
    Alfred Hitchcock,    by Brenard Press Ltd,    1955,    NPG x182314,    © reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London Alfred Hitchcock, by Brenard Press Ltd, 1955
    Pablo Picasso,    by Cecil Beaton,    April 1965,    NPG x40333,    © Cecil Beaton Archive / Condé Nast Pablo Picasso, by Cecil Beaton, April 1965
    Andy Warhol,    by John Swannell,    1979,    NPG x87612,    © John Swannell / Camera Press Andy Warhol, by John Swannell, 1979

Activists

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
    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
    Mahatma Gandhi,    after Jacob Kramer,    1932,    NPG D7574,    © William Roberts Society Mahatma Gandhi, after Jacob Kramer, 1932
Black and white photo of an older woman's head and shoulders
Helen Keller Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images, 1950 © Getty Images
Close-up black and white photo of a man's face; he has a moustache and is wearing a suit and tie
Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images, 1964 © Getty Images

Explorers

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
    Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton,    by Reginald Grenville Eves,    1921,    NPG 2608,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, by Reginald Grenville Eves, 1921
A man in an astronaut's suit with an American flag on the shoulder, holding his helmet to his side
Neil Armstrong
Photo by NASA/Newsmakers, 1969 © Getty Images
    Gertrude Bell,    by Flora Russell,    circa 1890?,    NPG 4385,    © estate of Flora Russell Gertrude Bell, by Flora Russell, circa 1890?
    Dame Jane Goodall with Figan,    by Ken Regan,    circa 1989,    NPG x136430,    © reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London Dame Jane Goodall with Figan, by Ken Regan, circa 1989

Scientists

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
    Alan Turing,    by Elliott & Fry,    29 March 1951,    NPG x27079,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Alan Turing, by Elliott & Fry, 29 March 1951
    Marie Curie,    by Pacific & Atlantic Photos Ltd,    1923,    NPG x138968,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Marie Curie, by Pacific & Atlantic Photos Ltd, 1923
    Albert Einstein,    by Walter Benington, for  Elliott & Fry,    18 May 1928,    NPG x82213,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Albert Einstein, by Walter Benington, for Elliott & Fry, 18 May 1928
Headshot of an older woman wearing a blue top and jacket with a large brooch
Tu Youyou by Alexander Mahmoud, 2015 © Nobel Media AB

Leaders

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
    Nelson Mandela,    by Ian Homer Walters,    2008, based on a work of 2001,    NPG 6868,    Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London Nelson Mandela, by Ian Homer Walters, 2008, based on a work of 2001
    Winston Churchill,    by Sir William Orpen,    1916,    NPG L250,    Lent by the Churchill Chattels Trust; Image © National Portrait Gallery, London Winston Churchill, by Sir William Orpen, 1916
    Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference,    by Richard L. Sarno, distributed by  United States Army Signal Corps,    February 1945,    NPG x199337,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, by Richard L. Sarno, distributed by United States Army Signal Corps, February 1945
    Conservative Party Conference, Brighton 1982,    by Paul Brason,    1982-1985,    NPG 5843,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Conservative Party Conference, Brighton 1982, by Paul Brason, 1982-1985

Entertainers

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
    David Bowie,    by Stephen Finer,    1994,    NPG 6336,    © Stephen Finer / National Portrait Gallery, London David Bowie, by Stephen Finer, 1994
    Marilyn Monroe,    by Cecil Beaton,    22 February 1956,    NPG x40266,    © Cecil Beaton Archive / Condé Nast Marilyn Monroe, by Cecil Beaton, 22 February 1956
    Charlie Chaplin,    published by J. Millhoff & Co Ltd,    published circa 1930,    NPG x196381,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Charlie Chaplin, published by J. Millhoff & Co Ltd, published circa 1930