Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People

Past display archive
3 December 2011 - 8 July 2012

Room 33


This display looks in detail at fourteen portraits of people whose identities are uncertain. Dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these portraits were once thought to depict famous sitters including Queen Elizabeth I, the young pretender to the throne Lady Arabella Stuart, and the poet and courtier Sir Thomas Overbury. These identities, however, have long since been disputed. New research, undertaken in part by MA students from the University of Bristol, is presented alongside the portraits. The likelihood of previously given identities is assessed and, in some cases, new identities are suggested.

Inspired by these mystery portraits, internationally renowned authors John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters have imagined what the lives of these sitters might have been like. Their fictional biographies and character sketches accompany the exhibition and were published together in a fully illustrated paperback.

Read extracts from the Imagined Lives publication

Imagined Lives podcast

imagined Lives podcast

Listen to extracts on the Imagined Lives podcast

Eight internationally acclaimed authors have invented imaginary biographies and character sketches based on fourteen unidentified portraits. Who are these men and women, why were they painted, and why do they now find themselves in the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery? With fictional letters, diaries, mini-biographies and memoirs, Imagined Lives creates vivid stories about these unknown sitters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Courtesy of the National Trust

Listen to the podcast in iTunes

Download the mp3s

  1. The Life of Nicholas Colthurst by Sarah Singleton
  2. The Biography of William Wrighton by Julian Fellowes
  3. Rosy by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Mathilda's Letter by Minette Walters
  5. A Letter from Catherine Hartshorn by Joanna Trollope
  6. The Tale of Joshua Easement by Terry Pratchett
  7. False Mary by Alexander McCall Smith

Imagined Lives story competition

Inspired by the Imagined Lives display, the Gallery ran a competition to encourage people to write their own stories to accompany the portraits. A selection of the stories were chosen and included here on the website and in the Imagined Lives display.

Photo of portraits hanging on the gallery wall

© National Portrait Gallery, London