London is packed to the rafters with great museums, from the British Museum to the Tate, the Natural History Museum to the V&A. Yet many visitors fail to make it past the big hitters, which is why every month we’ll be highlighting one of our favourite lesser-known museums within easy reach of Strand Palace Hotel.
This month… National Portrait Gallery.
If your visit to London has taken you to any of Britain’s historical or cultural sites, then the National Portrait Gallery is your chance to finally put a face to the many names you’ve doubtlessly heard. This is England’s family photo album and it includes a number of stunning photographs, as well as the portraits that commemorated people long before photography was invented. You can come face-to-face with royals, writers, thinkers and politicians — all those who come under the remit established for the collection at its founding in 1856 as “a gallery of original portraits … of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in arts, in literature or in science”.
The galleries are a who’s who of British history. Highlights of the collection include a portrait of Shakespeare (the very first painting included in the collection) and the ‘Ditchley’ portrait of his contemporary Queen Elizabeth I. Visual artists are commemorated here too and in the case of William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the paintings are self-portraits. Look out for the sweet sketch of Jane Austen alongside pictures of modern writers such as JK Rowling. The ‘thinking man’s Madame Tussauds’ also offers a chance to see British sporting and entertainment icons such as David Beckham and Blur.
As well as the permanent collection, the gallery hosts popular exhibitions and changing displays. The current exhibition (running until 22 February) is of finalists in the photographic portrait prize competition. One of the popular current displays focuses on Tudor kings and queens while another, called ‘Old Titles and New Money’, looks at the American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy.
The ‘Suffragettes: Deeds not Words’ display marks the centenary of the women’s right to vote movement and takes its title from the movement’s motto. This special display spotlights the campaign, which protested against the imprisonment and inhumane treatment of activists. The setting is particularly powerful as this Suffragette campaign, which involved attention-grabbing civil disobedience and vandalism, included attacks on paintings at the National Portrait Gallery.
How to visit
The Gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm, with additional late night opening on Thursdays and Fridays until 9pm. Located next door to the National Gallery, you can make a cultural day of it, taking a break for something to eat or drink at the Portrait Café or Bar, or at the famous rooftop Portrait Restaurant, which re-opens this month and boasts stunning views across Trafalgar Square.
Entrance is free to the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection and changing displays, though the special exhibitions are charged.
Looking for hotels near the National Portrait Gallery? It’s less than ten minutes’ walk from Strand Palace Hotel, which is centrally located and within easy reach of London’s other sights and cultural attractions.
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