Only Connect, was an experimental display at the National Portrait Gallery presenting a web of portraits connecting sitters across three centuries. Comprising paintings, sculpture, photographs, engravings, drawings, miniatures and works in other media from the National Portrait Gallery’s holdings, the display used musical connections to explore new ways of looking at the Collection.
The display proposed a network of threads connecting singers, composers, artists, doctors, sculptors, poets, engineers, ambassadors and many others. As a result, everyone in the display was linked in one way or another. The connections ranged from the profound and the personal to the accidental and the incidental. Some were friends and some were lovers; several wrote about each other or had similar ideas; others were enemies or simply met on the street. For example, composer Benjamin Britten and violinist and conductor, Yehudi Menuhin performed at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after liberation in 1945. Yehudi Menuhin gave ground-breaking performances of composer Michael Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia. The sets and costumes for Tippett’s opera Midsummer Marriage were designed by sculptor Barbara Hepworth. An alternative route is formed by writer George Bernard Shaw who corresponded with the pianist Harriet Cohen. She premiered Elgar’s Piano Quintet and Elgar made his most famous recording of his Violin concerto with the teenaged Yehudi Menuhin. Such links evoke an invisible layer of human interconnectedness, a virtual six degrees of separation through the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
The choice of pictures reflected a ‘reading’ of the National Portrait Gallery collection in the light of interaction and connectedness. Any sense of hierarchy, whether between creative or interpretative artists and musicians, or between great engineers and dentists, was avoided. This was reflected in the choice of works in the display, which purposefully presented mass-produced material such as engravings alongside masterworks. The title of the display Only Connect was taken from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, which is concerned with the difficulties, troubles and benefits of relationships between members of different social classes. The display, Only Connect, presented one possible reading: it was open to the viewer to make other connections.
The display was devised by Peter Sheppard Skærved, violinist, in collaboration with Paul Moorhouse, 20th Century curator at the National Portrait Gallery. Peter Sheppard Skærved is the dedicatee of over 200 works for solo violin, and has appeared as soloist in over thirty countries.