The National Portrait Gallery's Hidden Secrets

By M@ Last edited 14 months ago
The National Portrait Gallery's Hidden Secrets
Image by Herry Lawford, creative commons licence.

The National Portrait Gallery on St Martin's Place displays hundreds of portraits, but it also holds many secrets.

About the building

  • A 'secret tunnel' runs under Orange Street, connecting the public gallery buildings to staff offices.
  • The current NPG offices were once a nightclub where Audrey Hepburn performed.
  • The building is on the site of the St Martin’s Workhouse. This in turn was built on the site of St Martin's Church burial ground. The image below is from Horwood's Map of 1792-99.
  • For the first 11 years of its existence, the gallery was located in a private house. Sir
    George Scharf, the Gallery’s Secretary, cohabited with the portraits, his mother and his
  • By coincidence, Scharf had been born in St Martin's Lane, just yards from the future gallery site. He died the year before the gallery opened on its current site.
The gallery's permanent home opened in 1896, as this contemporary illustration from The Graphic, 4 April 1896, shows. (c) Illustrated London News Group, courtesy of The British Library Board. From the British Newspaper Archive.
  • Tragedy struck the gallery in 1909, when a man shot his wife dead, then immediately took his own life. The incident took place in a public gallery, which has since been converted to office space in the east wing.
  • In November 1941, two bombs fell on the gallery: one demolished a staircase; the other one fell in the courtyard outside the Director’s sleeping quarters. Thankfully there were no casualties.
  • Bomb damage to windows gave vermin easy access and by the end of the war the gallery had a rat problem. Staff answered the call and kept a meticulous list of ‘rats trapped and killed in the gallery 1940-1946.’
  • There are four beehives on the roof of the gallery’s Orange Street offices and staff at the
    gallery manage the hives. NPG honey is sold in the Gallery shop.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
  • The gallery has grown many times over the years. In 2017, it won a £9.4m heritage lottery grant, which will help it increase its gallery space by 20%.

The paintings

  • Opened in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery was the first portrait gallery in the world.
  • The original collection of 1858 featured just 42 portraits. Today, the gallery has more than 11,000 works in it’s Primary Collection.
  • The famous portrait of Elizabeth I is one of many in the collection to hide a secret. Research shows that the painting originally depicted the queen holding a serpent.
Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist 1580s-1590s © National Portrait Gallery, London; photograph National Gallery, London
  • Likewise, in 1968, a self-portrait by William Hogarth was X-rayed, revealing a hidden pug.
  • The Gallery’s portrait of Sir Henry Unton circa 1596 includes possibly the first depiction of an umbrella (or parasol) in English art. It was developed in Italy and he is shown using it on his journey from Venice in the upper-right corner.
Sir Henry Unton by Unknown artist circa 1596 © National Portrait Gallery, London
  • The portrait of Chevalier d'Eon shows one of the first openly transvestite men in Britain. You can even see the stubble.
  • In July 1914, a portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Millais was attacked by a suffragette wielding a meat cleaver.

Other media

  • While many think of the National Portrait Gallery as a collection of paintings, it has long championed other forms of art. The Collection includes sculptures, medals, coins, death masks, wax busts, pottery figures, papier mache models, prints, taxidermy, film, and even blood.
  • The Gallery held its first photographic retrospective exhibition, on the work of Cecil Beaton, in 1968. Public reaction to the innovative staging was mixed, with some supportive of the new direction for temporary displays and others accusing the Gallery of ‘trying to stage a happening’.
Tracey Emin's death mask... notable for being created and displayed while the artist is very much still alive
  • The Gallery holds a portrait of Isabella Blow in which artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster transform an amorphous collection of objects into a silhouette of Blow's head. Included in the sculpture are a stuffed raven and rat, in addition to Blow's trademark lipstick and one of her own Manolo Blahnik shoes.
  • Marc Quinn ‘self’ is a self-portrait cast with eight pints of Quinn's frozen blood. Described by the artist as a 'frozen moment on lifesupport', the work is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, reminding the viewer of the fragility of existence.
  • Sir John Sulston by Mark Quinn is made from the sitter's own DNA.

Last Updated 26 January 2018