A Question of Identity: Self-Portrait Photographs 1850-2000

Past display archive

Brian Griffin
by Brian Griffin
NPG x125281

20 September 2005 - 29 January 2006

Bookshop Gallery


This display complements our major SELF PORTRAIT Renaissance to Contemporary exhibition on the ground floor. While that exhibition examines the history and development of the genre of self-portraits in oil paint, this display looks at the more recent history of the portrait photograph. Covering over 150 years, the earliest examples date from the 1850s and feature two from a series of staged tableaux by the sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas. Later works include intimate studies by Madame Yevonde, Lee Miller and Lewis Morley, who portrayed himself with his wife Pat, in a Parisian hotel bedroom.

The play of light and shade is an essential ingredient in photography and is a chief consideration of the works on display here - Lee Miller's face is bathed in a warm glow, John Havinden's right cheek is brought sharply into focus, whilst the mirrors used by Bill Brandt, Harry Borden and Mike McCartney embrace a broader world reflecting the sky.

In addition to the way light affects composition, the actual shapes of these works are of interest. Early oval photographs refer back to the form and practice of miniature painting, whilst the landscape format accommodates the double portrait and a seated profile. There are two square photographs, an unusual format within the art of portraiture, but used to dynamic effect here, juxtaposed against the curve of Mike McCartney's mirror and the hood of Brian Griffin's jacket.

Other images show broader concerns with photographers utilising real interiors and props and costumes, for example Dorothy Wilding's studio with a line-up of her most famous sitters and the Victorian excess of Benjamin Brecknell Turner's parlour. Francis Frith implies foreign travel by recording himself in Arab garb and Madame Yevonde sports a harlequin costume, making the contrasting chequer pattern the focal point of her portrait.

Oliver François Xavier Sarony
by Oliver François Xavier Sarony
late 1850s
NPG P613

Yevonde as Harlequin
by Yevonde
NPG x11823

This display coincides with the publication of Insights: Self-Portraits by Liz Rideal. An introduction to the Gallery's collection of self-portraits, including 90 colour reproductions. Price £9.99.

- SELF PORTRAIT Renaissance to Contemporary