David Parry

Things To Do

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery | It’s Had a Facelift

The National Portrait Gallery has been out of the picture for way too long.

It’s been three years since we’ve been able to stare at the faces of Britain’s most famous (in painting, photo and sculpture form), but now, after a £35 million spruce-up, one of London’s best art galleries is back. 

You have to go all the way back to 1896 (40 years after the building originally opened) to find the last time the National Portrait Gallery underwent any major changes, so although the hiatus may have felt like forever to some, it’s been a long time coming to say the least.

national portrait gallery

David Parry

The newness starts with the entrance (there’s a new one at the gallery’s north façade), and continues on with a new wing (the Blavatnik Wing) that’s spread across nine galleries on the first floor. Both the East Wing (now Weston Wing) and the forecourt have also been sleekly modernised for today’s art-gazing standards, but at the same time, have also restored historical and decorative elements from the pre-makeover days.

six lives exhibition

Hiroshi Sugimoto – Anne of Cleves

Thanks to the boost in size, the whole of the gallery’s collection is now on display. Filling the space are some 220,000 portraits depicting notable Britons from the Tudor age up ‘til the present day. The permanent galleries are free to visit, but there’s also ticketed exhibitions that pop up throughout the year: on now is Six Lives (until 8th September), which seeks to demonstrate that while Henry VIIIth dominates Tudor history, he was a bit of a tool and his wives were actually highly interesting and unique individuals. Unfortunately, while they probably were highly interesting and unique individuals, Henry VIIIth was a tool – so the documentary evidence we have is both scant and unreliable.

By virtue of their position, the queens were essentially caught in a high-stakes branding exercise where their historical trail mostly shows how desperate they each were to promote their own legitimacy and fertility. In summary, it’s very hard to rewrite history when there’s so little to go on – but this exhibition offers a fascinating insight into one of the most notorious episodes in English history nonetheless.

portrait restaurant at the national portrait gallery

As merely being an ‘art gallery’ doesn’t quite cut it these days, food, drink and an events programme all have prominent roles to play in the NPG’s facelift, too. Like its neighbour the National Gallery, there’s art after dark (and special events) with weekend hours extending beyond the evenings once the opening frenzy settles down a bit. The Portrait, the aptly-named restaurant with top views over the London skyline, now boasts Richard Corrigan (the Irishman behind Bentley’s, Daffodil Mulligan and Dickies Bar) as chef. Audrey Green, meanwhile, a two-floor cafe from the Daisy Green group (Scarlett Green, Darcie & May Green etc), looks after the lunchtime/afternoon crowds. And also it’ll tend to those who want to hang around the gallery once it closes as well, as it transitions into a ‘sophisticated cocktail bar’ late into the night serving drinks made with London’s best small spirit producers and their own in-house infusions.

From there the picture gets a little blurry…


NOTE: The National Portrait Gallery is open daily from 10.30am-6pm (with gallery hours extended until 9pm on Friday and Saturday). Entry is free, but you can book for the temporary exhibitions right here.

The National Portrait Gallery | St. Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE

Art lover? See the best exhibitions on in London now

National Portrait Gallery

St Martin's Place, Charing Cross , WC2H 0HE

020 7306 0055