In the room there were many Good Paintings

Today I went to visit the Ugly Stepsisters of London’s national museums, otherwise known as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.

That was said in jest, of course, because they are perfectly charming in their own way, and were full of visitors happily milling about and viewing the multitude of paintings on display.

I went first to the National Portrait Gallery, which is tucked behind the more imposing National Gallery facing Trafalgar Square.

National Gallery from Trafalgar Square; St. Martin-in-the-Fields is to the right.

View across Trafalgar Square from the National Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856, collecting and displaying the portraits of the men and women who have made a significant contribution to British life. Up until 1969, sitters (save the royalty) had to be dead for at least ten years before they would be considered for display, to give the curators time to assess their reputation. This is no longer the case, and the Museum seeks to engage in active collecting through all mediums.

We begin on the second floor with the Tudors, spanning the years 1485-1603.

It was very exciting to see all the portraits of people I was familiar with, who I had seen in books and in documentaries.

These portraits of English Kings and Queens were probably painted between 1590-1620, and begin with King William I (1027-87) and end with Mary I (1516-58). They were probably commissioned to hang in  public spaces, though the differing styles suggest they were painted by different artists, if all from the same workshop. The earliest kings are mostly imaginary, while the later were taken from an effigy or painting believed to be made during life.

Richard III (1452-85), last of the Royal House of York, and killed by the Lancastrian army lead by Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard is commonly known for his role in the disappearance of his nephews, the young Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, from the Tower of London. He was crowned not long after. There’s a group of people who maintain his innocence in the affair, but those using common sense are confident he orchestrated the whole thing.

Elizabeth of York (1466-1503), she married Henry VII in 1486, uniting the houses of Lancaster and York. She is seen here holding the white rose of York. Portraits of Henry from this time show him holding the red rose of Lancaster.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87). She was eventually executed by her cousin, Elizabeth I, for treason in plotting to take over the English throne. This painting is believed to have been taken during her lifetime.

Elizabeth I (1533-1603), probably done shortly after her ascension to the throne, and probably not done from life, given the formulaic style of the work. The brown background used to be bright blue, and has since faded over time. 

Sir Robert Dudley (1532/3-88), was Elizabeth’s only truly serious English suitor, and remained a favorite with her until his death. This portrait has been cut down from its original size.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), his life was marked by ups and downs, being a favorite with Elizabeth I and eventually executed on orders from James I.

The upper left of Raleigh’s portrait shows a crescent moon with water underneath it, perhaps symbolizing his relationship with Elizabeth. She was commonly associated with the moon goddess Cynthia, and the inclusion of water may allude to Raleigh’s willingness to be controlled by the Queen as the tides are controlled by the moon.

Up next are the Stuarts, including some very famous faces and an English king who was executed for high treason.

This dark, mysterious fellow is the poet John Donne (1572-1631).

We all know who this is, but just for edification purposes, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Lord Protector of Great Britain of the Commonwealth after the Civil War and subsequent beheading of Charles I for treason.

The unfortunate Charles I (1600-49), previously mentioned.

These three lovely ladies personify the old adage: Well-behaved women seldom make history.

Francis, Countess of Somerset (1590-1632). She divorced Robert Devereux, married Robert Carr, and then she, her second husband, and several others will found guilty of poisoning Sir Thomas Overbury, who had opposed the marriage. After spending six years in prison they were pardoned. It was said of Somerset: “If he had not met with such a woman he might have been a good man.”

Anne, Countess of Pembroke (1590-1676), became famous for fighting a long legal battle to reclaim her inheritance as her father’s only surviving child; he left everything to his brother.

She eventually won.

Nell Gwyn (1651(?)-87), actress and mistress to Charles II. This highly revealing portrait was probably intended for private viewing, perhaps by one of her lovers, or even by Charles II himself. 

Charles II (1630-85) spent most of his early life in exile, he was restored to the throne in 1660. His court was notoriously lax in morals; Charles had fourteen illegitimate children and no heir. He was succeeded by his brother, James.

For some reason I didn’t get a picture of James II, who was eventually forced to leave England in exile after his Roman Catholic religion made the people nervous. They replaced him with his Protestant eldest daughter, Mary, and her husband William of Orange.

William III (1650-1702). He reigned jointly with his wife Mary II until her death in 1694.

Mary II (1662-94) is shown here at the age of fifteen, when she married William. She proved to be a wise and effective ruler, especially when William was away waging war.

Queen Anne (1665-1714)

After William III died, Mary II’s sister Anne became Queen. Poor Anne had eighteen pregnancies, none of the children survived childhood. She was the last of the Stuart rulers.

Here we move away from royalty to focus on two important minds of the Stuart period:

John Locke (1632-1704) was noted for his essays on religion and education.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) had the whole apple/gravity moment.

We are now in the Hanoverian period, which began after Anne’s death sans heir, leading to George of Hanover, the great-grandson of James I, being invited by Parliament to become the next king.

First though, two interesting faces, one probably recognizable, the other not so much:

John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of Methodism.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701-73) was educated in West Africa and came from a family of Muslim clerics. He was captured and sold into slavery in America in 1731, and managed to get to Britain in 1733. Here he was recognized for his piety and education. Diallo mixed with high and intellectual levels of English society and was introduced at Court. He was eventually bought out of slavery due to public demand, and was often sited in arguments against the slave trade and in asserting the moral rights and humanity of black people. This is the first oil portrait of a freed slave in British art and the first to honor a named African subject.  

And now back to royalty:

George I (1660-1727) was never popular, and spent most of his time in Germany.

George II (1683-1760) came to England from Hanover in 1714 to become Prince of Wales. He didn’t get along with his father, and his court became home to the political agitators of the day. As king, he was a skilled military strategist and was the last British monarch to lead his army into battle against the French at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.

Queen Caroline (1683-1737) was the wife of George II. She was more involved in state affairs than any other royal consort since the Middle Ages. The heads of her seven surviving children appear in the cornucopia by her feet, which is a little weird, allegory aside.

Kitty Fisher (d. 1767) was a courtesan known for her beauty, wit, and daring horsemanship. When the painting was exhibited she was unnamed, but the artist, Nathaniel Hone, embedded clues to the identity of the sitter, with the black kitten (Kitty) fishing with its paw in a fishbowl filled with little gold fish (Fisher).

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), composer of Messiah, was blind by the time this was painted.

George III (1738-1820) was the grandson of George II and the first Hanoverian king born and raised in England. He is most famous in the States as being the king that lost the American colonies and having bouts of insanity, although he did remain interested in state affairs until 1811, when he was was declared mad and no longer fit to rule.

This is Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), whose portrait I’ve made larger because I think her face is intriguing. Charlotte was George III’s wife, she met him on 9 September 1761 and married him later that evening. She spoke no English and was under strict supervision by her husband, though these early feelings of isolation later gave way to a strong and loving bond between them. She had fifteen children and her German connections provided her husband links to the Continent. 

Yay here’s Ben Franklin!

And good ol’ George Washington.

And huzzah, we are now in the Regency! Technically the years of the regency are only from 1811, when George III was declared mad and his son was declared Prince Regent, to 1820 when he died and the Regent was declared King George IV. However, the Regency as an era is considered to have begun in 1789 with the beginning of the French Revolution and ended in 1832 with Britain’s Great Reform policy.

The Regency was an interesting if contradictory period, when the royalty and aristocracy lived in greater elegance than ever but also engaged in a startling amount of debauchery.

George IV (1762-1830) as Prince Regent

Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1830), a widow and a Catholic, was persuaded to marry George IV in 1785, even though this was illegal. They didn’t have the permission of the King, and in marrying a Catholic George would be required to give up the succession. She was forced to pretend to be his mistress, patiently enduring this humiliation even when George married Caroline of Brunswick in 1795 as a way to get Parliament to grant him more money (he was very much in debt). 

Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821) was married to George IV as part of a deal with Parliament to help get him out of his dire financial straits. Caroline was found to be poorly educated, crude, and boisterous, and George abandoned her soon after the birth of their daughter Princess Charlotte.

Caroline had her revenge on him by engaging in defiant indiscretion and promiscuity abroad.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) was as beloved by the people of England as her family was scorned. Described as warm-hearted if a bit excitable, she married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816. Their happiness was cut short when she died in childbirth a year later in 1817, her child did not survive either. 

William IV (1765-1837) ruled for seven years, from 1830 until his death. He had ten illegitimate children by his mistress Mrs. Jordan, and none from his wife Princess Adelaide. His niece Victoria succeeded him to the throne.

The immortal Jane Austen (1775-1817) was drawn by her sister Cassandra, in what is the only known sketch to have been made depicting her face during her lifetime.

You can read about my visit to the Jane Austen Museum here.

John Keats (1795-1821) is on the left. He was painted while he was writing his famous odes and shortly before the onset of his fatal illness. A likeness similar to this was given to Fanny Brawne, Keats’ fiancee, even though Keats was against the gift. To the right is John Hamilton Reynolds (1796-1852) now mostly known for being Keats’ close friend and correspondent, but renowned in his own time for his sonnets. Both miniatures were painted by Joseph Severn (1793-1879), Keats’ close friend who painted him many times, both while he lived and posthumously.

You can see more of his work and read about my visit to Keats’ House here.

Down on the first floor came the Victorians, beginning in 1837 when Victoria ascended the throne and lasted until her death in 1901. She is the longest reigning monarch to date.

Prince Albert (1819-61) married Queen Victoria in 1840. He was a great patron of science and the arts, and was the prime mover behind the Great Exhibition of 1851. This portrait was presented to the National Portrait Gallery by Queen Victoria herself in 1867.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) ascended the throne in 1837.

Jenny Lind (1820-87) was a Swedish singer who made her debut in England in 1847. Her beautiful voice and solid reputation added to the enthusiasm the British had for her.

The Bronte sisters, from left: Anne (1820-49), Emily (1818-48), and Charlotte (1816-55). 

They don’t look very happy.

Robert Lewis Stevenson (1850-94) was a famous author, among his works are Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her daughter . . .

. . . Dame Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958)

I chose to include a few from the modern galleries, including:

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)

Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (1961-97). This was done shortly after her engagement to Charles.

HM Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926); this was painted in 1969.

I normally don’t go for modern art but for some reason I liked this one of Mick Jagger (b. 1943) by Andy Warhol (1928-1987).

That was the end of my visit to the National Portrait Gallery, and it was only a short hop, skip and a jump to the National Gallery.

Now, I’ve always liked this line from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you can replace “Elizabeth” with “Rachel” and it will sum up my situation nicely: “In [the room] there were many good paintings; but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art; and from such as had been already visible below, she had willingly looked at some drawings . . . whose subjects were usually more interesting, and also more intelligible.”

For example, I know this is “good” art (it’s better than that horrid modern stuff anyway) but I have no idea why:

Still Life with Pewter Flagon and Two Ming Bowls, Jan Jansz. Treck, 1661.

Hence most of what I admired and chose to share with you are portraits, because I find them the most interesting and engaging. Also they wear clothes, and I love historical clothes.

Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (The Morning Walk), 1785, by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88).

This mostly likely represents the happy couple in their wedding clothes.

Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame (1763-4)

Jeanne-Antionette Poisson (1721-64) was a very famous mistress of Louis XV. Here she is shown at the end of her life working on embroidery.

Manon Balletti (1757), when this portrait was being painted Cassanova was declaring his love for her. Three years later she would marry architect Jacques Francois Balletti, who was 35 years her senior. 

Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun, 1788. This adorable little girl is preparing to knit.

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, about 1750, by Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs. Andrews’ lap is unfinished, perhaps to hold a child. I’ve seen this picture a lot and it was exciting to see it up close.

This guy looks like Prince Philip:

Yet another picture I’m used to seeing.

Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife (‘The Arnolfini Portrait’) 1434

Jan van Eyck (active 1422, died 1441)

This one I found intriguing:

Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?) (‘Le Chapeau de Paille’) probably 1622-5

Peter Paul Rubens


Self portrait at the Age of 63, 1669

I really liked the expression on this otherwise anonymous girl’s face.

This picture was probably sketched from life and was never intended to have the formal quality of Hogarth’s other works.

The Shrimp Girl, about 1740-5

William Hogarth, 1697-1764

Another portrait whose sitter makes it interesting:

Dona Isabel de Porcel, before 1805

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

Isabel was painted in the fashionable style of a maja, a term for young ladies in the city who wore the elaborate matilla headpiece. X-rays have shown this was originally a portrait of a man that was painted over, you can see the dark curve of a masculine eyebrow on Isabel’s chin.

I’d like to thank all of you who made it this far, I know this was mostly a lot of pictures with little history lessons blurbed underneath.

The layout of these galleries was different from the other museums I’ve visited so far, with the pieces mostly on the walls (save the several statues and busts in the National Portrait Gallery) and only set one deep (at eye level) for maximum viewing potential. Both were also very traditional, with a few feints made in the way of catering to technology in the form of interactive areas in the National Portrait Gallery.

Such spacing made viewing a lot easier, as people were given the room to spread out a bit, especially in the larger galleries. There was some clumping around the more famous paintings, but for the most part everything was doable and there weren’t the stifling crowds one had to deal with in the British Museum.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and wouldn’t mind going back for more.

The Ugly Stepsisters turned out to be mighty comely after all.

I used the Visitor Guide I purchased in the National Portrait Gallery’s gift shop for some of the information shared here.


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