Thursday, 8 October 2015

Face of Britain: National Portrait Gallery

Not all learning in museums is about the objects they display. In the museum learning literature it is acknowledged that people sometimes learn, "something new about each other"*. Never, for me, has this been so apparent than when I went with my dad to see Simon Schama's Face of Britain at the National Portrait Gallery. I'm in my late forties, you'd think I know him quite well by now.

As with the Grayson Perry exhibition, 'Who Are You?' at the National Portrait Gallery on last year, which you can read about here, Face of Britain is displayed over all three of the gallery's floors. My dad has been here before, he knows the form, he suggests taking the lift to the top and working our way down (the stairs). "Much easier that way."
Face of Britain looks at portraits and identity with five themes:
Power, Love, Fame, Self and People.


Walking into the room, "that's Cromwell."
"How do you  know?"
"Cromwell, he is so distinctive, rugged, slightly nasty, I just know what he looks like."
I one the other hand, hadn't got a clue.
"Did you do history at school?"
"No, I hated history at school, bad teacher, it all depends on the teacher. I developed my interest in history after school." 
My dad went round the National Portrait Gallery identifying people. I wasn't expecting this, hearing all he knew about history, particularly impressed by him being able to identify Kings and Queens, and in the right order.

'Power', it kind of had to be... I didn't need my dad to tell me this was Margaret Thatcher.

"That makes her look softer than she was"
"...almost vulnerable looking."
"The only time she looked like that was when she was booted out."

This is when he dropped a bombshell. Never assume you know how your closest family vote.
"What! I can't believe it. I always thought you were a ..." I can't tell you how surprised I was.

Thatcher seemed to spark quite a bit of conversation, I couldn't help but overhear.
"Apparently she kept interfering with what the artist was doing."
 "Well that just about sums her up!"

The Queen. A 3D picture, a bit like one of those 3D postcards where things move. I had one where if you looked at it from different angles, giraffes moved their heads from side to side.
" I don't like it, her nose is pronounced too much."
I so wished it was one of those 3D moving pictures and she would open her eyes when stepped from side to side looking at her from different angles. It was not to be, this image was inspired by seeing the queen resting, a quick shut-eye between the official shots.

Here's another Elizabeth, the first.

No resting for her, she has a country to rule, painted under her feet, putting us firmly in our place.


My dad proves to be a mine of information. he doesn't need to read the label to know this is is George, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent.

George, despite his "serial amorous adventures", had one true love, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (Mrs). When he died George was found with her portrait in miniature around his neck.

It was also love that prompted Sir Kenelm Digby to call quickly for Van Dyck to paint Lady Venetia Digby after he found her dead in bed. He lived with this portrait by his side, day and night, but it didn't manage to fully console him.

The "great and the good, ...characters".

Simon Weston, he is part of both our consciousness, memories of the 1980s and the Falklands War. 

Everyday people, from Torquay. It's near where my mum lives, I scan the photos to see if I recognise anywhere. I really don't. But am impressed with this "Torquay fishwife's" 'leg o'mutton' sleeves. What a great jacket.

These photos intrigue me. Surveillance photos of militant suffragettes, taken undercover while they were in prison. Imprisoned for damaging museum artefacts in the British Museum and the National Gallery. Their photos now hang in the National Portrait Gallery. So many questions, not least, how far would I go to stand up for women's rights? I am thankful for these women. 


I pause to take a photo to send to a friend via Facebook. We're playing a game. #GuessWho? 

My dad spots Nelson a mile off. I didn't realise how much of a celebrity Lady Emma Hamilton was. The mistress of one of the most famous people in Britain in the 18th century, she was "London's biggest female celebrity". Many of her portraits were reproduced in etchings to "provide the public with affordable portraits". Etchings, social media, has much changed?


This is the "earliest known oil self-portrait painted in England". It's tiny. Painted whilst inprisoned at the Tower of London, Gerlach Flicke also painted his fellow cellmate, Henry Strangwish, who was in for piracy. 

Frank Auerbach. "very clever scribbles". Despite looking "scribbled", perhaps rushed, Auerbach worked on this painting for six years, continually rubbing bits out. Possibly a testament to that feeling of looking in the mirror and not really being happy at what you see.

Dame Laura Knight in her studio. I love this painting. She's there, hard at work in a life-drawing class, establishing herself as an artist, in a place where previously she had been barred, for being a woman.

David Bomberg, we read, went to the Slade school of art.
"Society of Lithographers, Artists, Designers and Engravers."
"No, not that Slade, the art college. But anyway, how do you know that?"
"My father was a member, a lithographer."
"I didn't know that, I only remember him retired."
"Yes he was a printer, worked in the Caledonian Road, Kings Cross. He was at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1940, getting ready to go to France in the Second World War, when he was told that he was not going because they needed him to be a forger, probably to help with the resistance. I don't know exactly what he worked on as he'd signed the official secrets act and never told his family. I've found all this out since he died."
"He could raw a perfect circle free-hand."
This was my grandfather from an ordinary semi in Wembley. I had no idea. 

Simon Schama tells us that Face of Britain is about identity, portraits, discovering who people are. As well as learning about the illustrious on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, I was thrilled to learn more about my family.

Simon Schama's Face of Britain is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 4th January 2016. Free admission. Details on their website here.  

Did you #GuessWho?

William Shakespeare

*Falk and Dierking, 1992


  1. It's nice that this exhibition includes photos and 3D pictures as well as the more traditional 'portrait' styles. A fascinating post... thank you! Jx

  2. I love the look of this and the way you've treated and presented it. Not only our history in people, but our own history with the people we see it alongside. Of course, the selection will inevitably reflect Schama's views and bias, but what the heck. Personally, I always thought Maggie was a sexy little minx...

    1. Thanks for making me laugh! And for also summing up what I did with this post. Sometimes it takes someone else to point it out, our own history alongside the bigger picture. Hope it comes across, but rather than review a museum or exhibition, I show how I/we engage with it. In my research (studies) I call it 'modelling'. Just trying to take the mystery out of visiting museums. What matters it that people engage, in any way they want to.

  3. What a fascinating exhibition, in oh so very many ways for you! Very enlightening. It shows that you shouldn't make assumptions even about those closest to you doesn't it. xx

  4. Thanks for reflecting how you and your dad interacted with this museum! It is so interesting, Katharine. [I recognized Margaret Thatcher, and Queen Elisabeth :)] xx

  5. Looks like a fascinating exhibition. The National Portait Gallery is one of my favourite places but I haven't been for years so it was great to see it through your photos, especially of the portaits included in this exhibition. I think there is a TV series on at the moment which I keep meaning to catch up with:)

  6. What a great walk through for anyone who can't get there in person. I must go. I have no excuse. I recognised the whole face before I got to the name but not the eyes. I thought Maggie looked a bit like Princess Anne in that portrait.

  7. I am glad they included photographs as well as paintings in the exhibition. I wonder if your father's interest in history has led him to research his own ancestry.

    1. Now you mention it, it has. He has been looking at the history of the Napier clan in Scotland, his mother's side.

  8. Be glad you had the chance to learn so much. Cherish it. I wish I still had the opportunity to share such things with my dad.

  9. Great post Katherine, I really enjoyed my virtual walk through with you and your Dad, the mix of political/art history and family history. I love that miniature self portrait, and Dame Laura Knight, so evocative and yet the portraits of Thatcher and Elizabeth I show the incredible myth making power the artist can command.

  10. Brilliant post and a wonderful tour of the exhibition. How lovely to be able to do this with your Dad.

  11. Anything involving Simon Schama gets my interest, and I wish I was over there to see this exhibition! Very enjoyable to read it through the conversations with your father Katharine, which rather reminds me of conversations with my father. So much of interest here: poor Van Dyke, having to paint a death portrait, and I love the fish-wife - bring back the leg o'mutton sleeve, I say :) The Thatcher portrait is very sympathetic, showing her vulnerable side - everyone has one...

  12. That's an interesting display - I can imagine how the Thatcher portrait would inspire lots of conversations!

  13. I had a brief visit to the National Portrait Gallery with my father a few years ago and must admit that I was able to predict almost exactly what he was going to say about most of the portraits! But you are absolutely right, generally we learn a surprising amount about each other from visiting museums together. I must make sure that I don't miss this exhibition - thanks very much for such an interesting post.

  14. This American would like you to know that Lady Hamilton's first name was Emma, not Jane.

    1. How embarrassing! Going to put that right straight away. Thanks for pointing it out :)

  15. I took my MiL round the Portrait Gallery once. I'm pretty good at identification - my history teacher had the Gallery's entire collection (I discovered when I went their first in person) in slide form and showed us them all. But at that time my Russian wasn't really up to explaining what had happened to Henry VIII's wives.

    So I acted it out.

    That looks like a really interesting exhibition. I wonder if it'll still be running at Christmas.

  16. (Yes it is, I have just realised, looking back at your post. Good. I feel a trip to the big smoke coming on).


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