London’s National Portrait Gallery Reopens With New Bronze Doors Designed by Tracey Emin—But an Underwhelming Rehang

Is a renovation ambitious enough to establish the long overshadowed museum on the world stage?

Ross Place Entrance and the new forecourt at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photograph: © Olivier Hess.

The National Portrait Gallery in London is welcoming the public tomorrow for the first time in three years following a $52 million renovation—the first of its kind since the museum opened in 1896. The finished product is undoubtedly sleek, but the rehang is underwhelming.

The museum has long stood in the shadow of its comparatively stately, world-renowned neighbor, the National Gallery. In lieu of a majestic facade overlooking Trafalgar Square, visitors accessed the building via an unassuming side door. Inevitably, the NPG has seized the opportunity to establish a slightly grander entrance for itself on the opposite side of the National Gallery, just a stone’s throw from Leicester Square. Three new bronze doors boast portraits of imagined everywomen by Tracey Emin in each of its 45 panels, a riposte to the roundels on the rest of the facade that are filled with age-old images of prominent men.

The “Portrait Portrait Portrait!!!” display, featuring Sir Joshua Reynold’s Portrait of Mai (Omai) (1776) at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: © David Parry.

Once inside, visitors are greeted by an airy main hall before being swiftly whisked up by escalator to level three, where the history of portraiture apparently begins with the Tudors. The presentation of the works is conventional, in some cases even old school “salon-style,” but the galleries do contain a few contemporary twists to lure new audiences. These include screens playing short films on topics like the painting techniques behind Tudor art or the scientific methods used to analyze it today.

A very generous number of rooms have been given over to this slightly repetitive period and few examples really stand out, although visitors will enjoy spotting occasional masterpieces like “The Ditchley Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I. Pride of place is given over to Joshua Reynold’s Portrait of Mai (1776), which was recently purchased by the NPG with help from the Getty Museum.

Another suite of rooms on the second floor are dedicated to the Victorian era and filled with the usual suspects: officious-looking men and resplendent royals. A modest attempt is made to widen our perspective via screens that offer the chance to flick through images of London street life, including flower sellers in Covent Garden and Italian performers.

A view through the “Art, Science and Society” display at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: © Gareth Gardner for Nissen Richards Studio.

Up next is a meagre holding of modern and contemporary art from 1945 onwards, which has been confined to just a few rooms. Nonetheless, it feels good to see some more familiar faces.

“Making the Modern World” has among its highlights Maggi Hambling’s portrayal of the Nobel Prize-winning British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin (1985) and a new posthumous portrait of Terrence Higgins by Curtis Holder, which was commissioned to mark the 40th anniversary of the Terrence Higgins Trust, a charity offering services related to HIV. The multilayered drawing shows the sitter at three stages of Higgins’s life, from adolescence to time spent in the navy before culminating in the final weeks before his death in 1982.

The contemporary galleries are surprisingly easy to miss, but it’s worth the journey to the pokier Weston Wing to see  works like Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Sadie (2018–19) of the celebrated author Zadie Smith and Chantal Joffe’s 2008 self-portrait with her daughter Esme. Another small selection of works tucked to the side of the main staircase surveys how a wide variety of women artists have chosen to represent themselves on canvas.

The Contemporary Collection in The Mary Weston Gallery in The Weston Wing at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: © David Parry.

The museum has decided not to include a famous 2010 portrait of the princes William and Harry by Nicky Philipps in its permanent collection. The decision prompted speculation that that the museum’s royal patron Kate Middleton may have pressured the curators to remove the work, following the much publicized rift between the two brothers. The museum has denied the accusation, noting that the work was taken off public display in August 2018, two years before the museum closed for refurbishment in 2020.

Tomorrow’s opening festivities will include the launch of First Look Festival, a program of events, discussions and activities for audiences of all ages that welcomes the musician Paul McCartney and Tracey Emin as its headlining guests.

Visitors excited to see the museum’s inaugural exhibition “Paul McCartney Photographs 1963–64” will have to wait until it opens on June 28 (through October 1). In the meantime, “Yevonde: Life and Colour” offers the first major retrospective of the English photographer who was a suffragette and early pioneer of color photography in the 1930s (through October 15).

 

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