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The National Portrait Gallery is an art gallery in Londonmarker, Englandmarker, housing a collection of portraits of historically important and famous British people. It was the first portrait gallery in the world when it opened in 1856. The gallery moved in 1896 to its current site at St Martin's Place, off Trafalgar Squaremarker, and adjoining the National Gallerymarker. It has been expanded twice since then. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) also has various satellite outstations located elsewhere in the UK, mostly for aristocratic portraits. It is unconnected to the Scottish National Portrait Gallerymarker in Edinburghmarker, with which its remit overlaps. The gallery is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The collection

The gallery houses portraits of historically important and famous British people, selected on the basis of the significance of the sitter, not that of the artist. The collection includes photographs and caricatures as well as paintings, drawings and sculpture. One of its best-known images is the Chandos portrait, the most famous portrait of William Shakespeare although there is some uncertainty as to if the painting actually is of the playwright.

Not all of the portraits are exceptional artistically, although there are self-portraits by William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and other British artists of note. Some, such as the group portrait of the participants in the Somerset Housemarker Conference of 1604, are important historical documents in their own right. Often the curiosity value is greater than the artistic worth of a work, as in the case of the anamorphic portrait of Edward VI by William Scrots, Patrick Branwell Brontë's painting of his sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, or a sculpture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in medieval costume. Portraits of living figures were allowed from 1969. In addition to its permanent galleries of historical portraits, the National Portrait Gallery exhibits a rapidly changing collection of contemporary work, stages exhibitions of portrait art by individual artists and hosts the annual BP Portrait Prize competition.

History and buildings

Inside the National Portrait Gallery
The three people largely responsible for the founding of the National Portrait Gallery are commemorated with busts over the main entrance. At centre is Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope, with his supporters on either side, Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay (to Stanhope's left) and Thomas Carlyle (to Stanhope's right). It was Stanhope who, in 1846 as a Member of Parliament (MP), first proposed the idea of a National Portrait Gallery. It was not until his third attempt, in 1856, this time from the House of Lords, that the proposal was accepted. With Queen Victoria's approval, the House of Commons set aside a sum of £2000 to establish the gallery. As well as Stanhope and Macaulay, the founder Trustees included Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Ellesmere. It was the latter who donated the Chandos portrait to the nation as the gallery's first portrait. Carlyle became a trustee after the death of Ellesmere in 1857.

For the first 40 years, the gallery was housed in various locations in London. The first 13 years were spent at 29 Great George Street, Westminstermarker. There, the collection increased in size from 57 to 208 items, and the number of visitors from 5,300 to 34,500. In 1869, the collection moved to Exhibition Roadmarker and buildings managed by the Royal Horticultural Society. Following a fire in those buildings, the collection was moved in 1885, this time to the Bethnal Green Museum. This location was ultimately unsuitable due to its distance from the West End, condensation and lack of waterproofing. Following calls for a new location to be found, the government accepted an offer of funds from the philanthropist William Henry Alexander. Alexander donated £60,000 followed by another £20,000, and also chose the architect, Ewan Christian. The government provided the new site, St Martin's Place, adjacent to the National Gallerymarker, and £16,000. The buildings, faced in Portland stone, were constructed by Shillitoe & Son. Both the architect, Ewan Christian, and the gallery's first director, George Scharf, died shortly before the new building was completed. The gallery opened at its new location on 4 April 1896.

The site has since been expanded twice. The first extension, in 1933, was funded by Lord Duveen, and resulted in the wing by architect Sir Richard Allison that runs along Orange Street. The second extension, in 2000, was funded by Sir Christopher Ondaatje. The Ondaatje Wing occupies a narrow space of land between the two 19th-century buildings of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, and is notable for its immense, two-storey escalator that takes visitors to the earliest part of the collection, the Tudor portraits.

In January 2008, the Gallery received its largest single donation to date, a £5m gift from U.S. billionaire Randy Lerner.

Exterior busts

In addition to the busts of the three founders of the gallery over the entrance, the exterior of two of the original 1896 buildings are decorated with stone block busts of eminent portrait artists, biographical writers and historians. These busts, sculpted by Frederick R. Thomas, depict James Granger, William Faithorne, Edmund Lodge, Thomas Fuller, The Earl of Clarendon, Horace Walpole, Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sir Peter Lely, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Louis François Roubiliac, William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Francis Chantrey.

Finances and staff

The National Portrait Gallery's total income in 2007-2008 amounted to £16,610,000, the majority of which came from government grant-in-aid (£7,038,000) and donations (£4,117,000). As of 31 March 2008 its net assets were £69,251,000. In 2008, the NPG had 218 full-time equivalent employees. It is an exempt charity under English law. Wikipedia contains digital images placed online by the National Portrait Gallery which (according to the Gallery) is in breach of English Copyright law from which the Gallery makes annually around £12,500


Legal action against the Wikimedia Foundation

On 14 July 2009, the National Portrait Gallery send a demand letter alleging breach of copyright against an editor-user of Wikipedia, who downloaded thousands of high-resolution images from the NPG website, and placed them on its sister media repository site, Wikimedia Commons.

See also


  1. Every great country must have its portrait gallery
  2. National Portrait Gallery | What's on? | Searching for Shakespeare
  4. History of the National Portrait Gallery, accessed 26 May 2008.
  5. Hulme, Graham pg 105
  6. [1]
  7. Charities Act 1993, Schedule 2.
  8. BBC Article
  9. Obituary of his father, the chemist Henry Wilson Hake
  10. Who Was Who entry
  11. Who Was Who entry

Further reading

  • Hulme, Graham, The National Portrait Gallery: An Architectural History, National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2000, ISBN 1855142937

External links

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