The National Portrait Gallery, London – All about British history in the people’s hall of fame

Among all the great FREE museums and galleries that you can visit in the British capital  the National Portrait Gallery has always fascinated me the most. This is probably because portraits have always been my favorite form of art, but also because there is always something new to see on every visit that you make to the National Portrait Gallery…

The National Gallery on a beautiful blue sky day
The National Gallery on a beautiful blue sky day

1. How to get there?

Both the National Portrait Gallery and “her big sister”, the National Gallery, are centrally located right on Trafalgar Square (just jump on the tube and get off Leicester Square or Charing Cross).

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

2. What’s there to see?

Portraits of all kinds of people – ordinary to royal, Middle Ages to ultra-modern. For the latter check out the BP Portrait Award showcasing 55 of the best contemporary portraits from around the globe. Sometimes they look as if the paint is still wet and sometimes you only believe that this image is not a photo if you come very close. It can’t get more modern than that!

Richard III portrait
Richard III portrait

My favorite part is much older though and goes by the name of the Tudor Gallery! I just love this time period and all the characters in it.  When Richard III.’s remains were re-discovered underneath a Leicester car park in 2012 and a wax model head was re-created to show what he probably looked like, it was amazing to see the similarities to the portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Richard III wax head
Richard III wax head

There is lots of information about the paintings written underneath, but for even more insight the audio guide (available in several languages) is a great companion. It only costs £3. I got an audio guide twice. Once in 2003 when I went to the gallery for the first time and then again quite recently. Perhaps not that surprisingly, the audio guide changed quite a bit in those 10 years and now looks more like an iPhone with videos and some other exciting interactive settings.

A British-Indian military man
A British-Indian military man
A remarkable lady, painted by an impressionist!
A remarkable lady, painted by an impressionist!

3. What’s there to do?

Both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery offer many opportunities to learn about art and the past. They both open longer every Thursday and Friday night for the “Late Shift”, which I always found is a great way to relax from work and welcome the weekend.

In the Portrait Gallery, there are free drawing sessions every Friday night. Pencils and paper are supplied. All you have to do is grab a chair and pick a portrait to draw. Usually there is a main theme according to which the area of the gallery is chosen, ie it could be the Tudor gallery. I gave my sketching a try several times – far from good, but good fun! Can you guess who this lady is?

My drawing

The Lunchtime Lecture Talks, meanwhile, are an excellent visual way to learn about specific periods in history. They are usually given by authors who promote their new book. One of the talks I listend to when I lived in London was given by Sarah Gristwood talking about the women connected with the Wars of the Roses in 14th to 15th century England.

I am fascinated by this period and had previously read a couple of novels told from the viewpoint of noble women living in those times. The most popular ones are certainly the novels by Philippa Gregory. In 2013, these were also made into a TV series called The White Queen.

Lunchtime Lecture

Other exciting events that I took part in at the gallery was the Elizabethan-themed day in October 2013. Actors showed the visitors how many layers of clothes Elizabethans wore (see below for female and male fashion of the day). I also attended a really cool workshop about how make-up was made and applied in those days.

And it was all for FREE! If you happen to go to London soon, check out What’s on. The next great free event might just be around the corner!

Actress on Elizabethan theme day
Actress on Elizabethan theme day
Actor on Elizabethan theme day
Actor on Elizabethan theme day

The National Gallery was also used as an actual film location such as in the James Bond movie Skyfall (2012).

Underground installation at Charing Cross tube station
Underground installation at Charing Cross tube station

4. How much does it cost?

It’s absolutely free for the permanent exhibition! Temporary, special exhibitions usually come at a cost. Some talks, lectures and courses you have to pay for, but others are free. Check out what’s on at the moment at:

For more information about opening hours, current exhibitions and special events at the National Portrait Gallery, visit their website.

Read more and start planning your trip:

Unless otherwise stated, all photos in this post were taken by © Sonja Irani 

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