London’s National Portrait Gallery Reopens After a $53 M. Refurbishment with an Updated Vision of Its Collection

If you had been a regular, you might be confused. The entrance to the National Portrait Gallery in London is no longer on St Martin’s Place—that’s now the way out—but on Ross Place, where an imposing statue of Victorian stage actor Henry Irving stands. At this new entrance, three windows have been converted into three-panel doors covered in 45 bronze low reliefs featuring “every woman, throughout time,” a commission by Tracey Emin.

This is the first time the National Portrait Gallery has undergone a top-to-bottom refurbishment since it moved to its current location in 1896. Overseen by both Jamie Fobert Architects (the firm behind Pace Gallery’s Hanover Square space and Tate St Ives) and Purcell Architects (Tai Kwun Centre in Hong Kong, Durham Cathedral, and Manchester Museum), the redevelopment project, which lasted three years and cost £41.3 million (about $53 million) foregrounded the restoration of various secret turns and corners in this Grade I–listed building, including the previously hidden terrazzo on the ground floor of the east wing.Many openings have been pierced to bring in natural light and connect the National Portrait Gallery to its time and its city. With a new rooftop restaurant, this remodel has increased the institution’s public space by about 20 percent.

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Three doors with etchings of women's faces on them.
Tracey Emin’s commissioned doors that serve as the new entrance to the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The NPG’s transformation, of course, would not have been complete without a major rehang. The exhibition galleries have also been redesigned—this time by Nissen Richards Studio, whose credits include the exhibition spaces for the Courtauld Gallery and Sheep Field Barn Gallery—in close collaboration with the NPG’s curatorial team. The NPG holds the largest collection of portraits in the world, with over 1,100 works, spanning from the Middle Ages to today. Though the works on view have increased by about a third, the display remains in great part chronological, and visitors are advised to start on the fourth floor (third in the British system) and work their way down.

Even if this is the recommended approach, meandering through the museum’s multiple galleries is also a solid choice; the institution’s greatest hits will catch the wanderer’s attention anyway. The iconic portrait of William Shakespeare (ca. 1600–10), attributed to John Taylor and the Gallery’s very first acquisition in 1856, is a case in point. It does not hang in the middle of a room or on a wall painted a different color, and it would be easy to miss if there weren’t still magnetic more than 400 years after its creation.

A salon-style hanging of several portraits in painting, drawing, and photographing, including of Ed Sheeran in the upper row, center right.
Installation view of the National Portrait Gallery’s rehanging.

Just past the ticket office, located in the newly uncovered Victorian terrazzo, is a gallery dedicated to “History Makers Now,” a presentation of new additions to the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. Among them is a Michael Armitage tapestry commissioned by the South Bank Centre as part of the “Everyday Heroes” project to celebrate “key workers, the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic” and Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake’s gigantic group portrait of influential British women, including novelist Virginia Woolf, comedian Dawn French, fashion model Kate Moss, Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman, and cellist Jacqueline du Pré, that was commissioned by the NGP’s trustees, with the support of the Chanel Culture Fund.

With works like these or Colin Davidson’s introspective portrait of musician Ed Sheeran or Jamie Coreth’s official joint portrait of the new Prince and Princess of Wales, this new section provides an engaging way to connect with the collection by updating it with portraits that today’s visitors will likely be more familiar with.   

Several busts stand on plinths, with a full-figure sculpture of a young Black woman on her phone at the center.
The new main entrance hall at the National Portrait Gallery, London, featuring Reaching Out (2021) by Thomas J Price, at center, with busts of Louis François Roubiliac, Nelson Mandela, and Felicia Dorothea Hemans surrounding it.

Throughout the reconfigured NPG, visitors will come across a new display that subtly points to the changes made to the institution over the past three years. In the lobby is a grouping of busts and studies for life-size sculptures, including Nelson Mandela, poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and Thomas J. Price’s bronze sculpture of a fictional Black woman scrolling on a smartphone, titled Reaching Out (2021). The work is on loan courtesy the artist’s gallery Hauser & Wirth, a way to fill in holes in the museum’s permanent collection and a harbinger of other loans to be found across the institution’s four floors, including Lady Margaret Beaufort, the only known full-length portrait of the countess, dating to the second half of the 15th century, which opens the Tudors section and is on loan from Cambridge’s St John’s College, or Ada Lovelace (1836) by Margaret Sarah Carpenter, lent by the Government Art Collection.

But the National Portrait Gallery has also made its own efforts to fill in those gaps. In the rehang, about 48 percent of the portraits in the 20th- and the 21st-century galleries are by women (up from 35 percent three years ago). Acquisitions since 2020 of works like Evelyn Nicodemus’ 1982 self-portrait, the first painted by a Black female artist to enter the collection, or a ca. 1820 self-portrait miniature by Sarah Biffin, a painter born without arms or legs who taught herself to sew, write, and paint using her mouth, are evidence of this. 

“We wanted to shed a different light on our collection, be more inclusive to expand our audiences,” said Catharine MacLeod, the gallery’s curator of 17th-century art.

Several blurred figures look at painted portraits in a museum.
Installation view of a display titled “Creativity, Conflict and the Crown,” at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The juxtaposition of 18th century works with contemporary ones foreshadows the cross-period commingling seen throughout this new display. The room devoted to silhouettes, an inexpensive way of having one’s portrait taken before the rise of photography, is one such illustration. Tracing the constant reinvention of this art form, beginning in 1770 and lasting to today, this section brings together etchings, paintings, papercuts, and photographs from different times, as well as an assemblage of taxidermy animals by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. When lit accordingly, the installation projects a shadow of fashion stylist Isabella Blow onto the wall. The overall effect is quite spectacular.

Another major change is that works on paper were not typically on view before the remodel. In the rehang, they have been instrumental in giving a fuller picture of the works in its collection, as does the updated explanatory information, with new audiovisual content, like videos explaining the labor-intensive process of making a miniature Tudor panel painting or touchscreens that allow you to identify each of the sitters in Sir George Hayter’s The House of Commons (1833), including the artist in the foreground.  

Overall, with luminous displays and spacious hangs, the new National Portrait Gallery has struck the right balance between chronological and thematic groupings of works. It is a pleasure experience that feels updated for a 2023 audience.  


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