First Look: The National Portrait Gallery Reopens

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 12 months ago

Last Updated 26 June 2023

First Look: The National Portrait Gallery Reopens

After three years away, the National Portrait Gallery makes a stunning comeback — with new wings, and over a third more portraits. Here's a sneak peek, ahead of its reopening on 22 June.

An escalator with a huge portrait of Marcus Rashford projected on the wall
A new 'living wall' greets visitors in the Ondaatje Wing Main Hall. Image: Londonist

A grand new entrance

We've already reported on this one. Tracey Emin's 45 portraits of women adorn three bronze doors of Ross Place, an all-new entrance on the north of the National Portrait Gallery, by Leicester Square. These salutatory artworks are wonderful in their childlike simplicity, and ironically will be best viewed when the gallery is closed. Step through the doors, and you find yourself in front of an escalator in the Ondaatje Wing Main Hall. This was here before, but it's now been elevated with a 'living wall' — huge projected images of everyone from Marcus Rashford to the late Queen (a nice touch here: the corgi's ear wiggle) fading in and out. Love ourselves a spiffy escalator.

A glut of new portraits

A portrait of a smiling Michael Eavis in front of the Pyramid Stage
How can this not make you smile? Image: Londonist

This refurb isn't like when a supermarket shifts stuff about a bit. Retaining a roughly chronological hang, there are scores of newly commissioned, acquired and borrowed pieces — well over 300 of them. Among them is a likeness of Zadie Smith by Toyin Ojih Odutola, Margaret Sarah Carpenter's Ada Lovelace, and (topical at time of writing) Peter Blake's joyous portrait of Michael Eavis beaming in front of Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage. The latter features in a new 'History Makers' display by the escalator, which is a kind of 'flavour of the moment' wall, currently starring Ed Sheeran, Lucy Bronze, Anna Wintour and a cute little Jacqueline Wilson mannequin.

New wings

Bust of a spectacled man in front of a corridor with parquet flooring
The Blavatnik Wing. Image: Londonist

The Blavatnik Wing is a new space for visitors, created within the existing NPG and featuring nine new galleries packed with depictions of great 19th/early 20th century names: Benjamin Disraeli, Mary Seacole, Beatrix Potter, James Joyce, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

People perusing art, as viewed through an archway
The Weston Wing is a new space in the NPG. Image: Londonist

There's also the Weston Wing, home to a slew of women's portraits; it's like a miniature Summer Exhibition — more traditional portraits juxtaposed with the like of Sarah Lucas' Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs. Delicious.

Far more diversity

A gallery wall of portraits of women
Image: Londonist

Many of the new portraits stir in a more layered diversity to the NPG's permanent collection. A key aim of the overhaul, says NPG, was to 'present an inclusive and dynamic picture of the people who have contributed to the rich history of the United Kingdom'. While Holbein's Henry VIII continues to glower in the Tudor gallery, and David Beckham carries on snoozing in Sam Taylor-Johnson's video, then, overall, portraits of women are up by 35%. Not only that, the refurb sprinkles plenty of contemporary figures — from Saoirse Ronan to Anohni Hegarty, which should pull in a younger crowd to the gallery. We also had a brief nosy around the Yevonde: Life and Colour exhibition — a triumph of dreamlike Vogue-esque glamour.

Collage of Toussaint L'Ouverture
Lubaina Himid's 1987 collage of slave-turned-revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture. Image: Londonist

A greater range of ethnic minority sitters feature too, including Everlyn Nicodemus' self portrait — the first painted by a Black female artist to be in the collection, and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Galleries that some may have found 'stuffy' are broken up with works such as Lubaina Himid's 1987 collage of slave-turned-revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture. No doubt the NPG will build on its newfound diversity as time goes on.

Some interesting takes on the concept of portrait

A football sticker album showing England and Scotland players
The NPG rethinks the concept of a portrait. Image: Londonist

Speaking of that Toussaint L'Ouverture collage, while paintings, photographs and busts still make up the lion's share of the NPG's collection, there are some wonderful thinking-outside-the-box displays, which make you reassess the meaning of 'portrait'. We were particularly pleased to see a set of football stickers, featuring current England and Scotland players (male and female, of course). Another highlight is a folding screen that belonged to Lord Byron, pasted with pictures of boxers and celebrities of the day — the forerunner to teenagers slapping up posters of David Beckham/Posh Spice on their wall.

Lots of other spiffy touches

A pink marbled wall in a bar scattered with portraits of classic actors, in black and white
Larry's has had a tasty refurb — we'll be back here for a martini soon. Image: Londonist

The voguish touches go on and on. Audrey Green by Daisy Green Collection is a new café, bar, and restaurant, featuring portraits of — who else — Audrey Hepburn (she was briefly a cabaret performer at the Ciro's nightclub on Orange Street, now part of the NPG). There's a rooftop offering too — Portrait Restaurant — which we didn't get to see. Larry's, the basement bar, is back, scattered with chic images of hellraisers like Peter O'Toole and Elton John. The NPG also has a shiny new shop. A lot of gleaming new playthings to take in.

Our verdict: NPG, we have missed you! This world-class gallery — much of which is FREE, by the way — is back with some pep in its step: more enlightened — more enlightening — than ever.