Sights & Activities

People…who read People…are the luckiest people at the National Portrait Gallery

February 4, 2012

LONDON, UK – It’s no wonder that the term “tabloid” originated in London. Before compromising photos of the Beckhams and Amy Winehouse were splashed all over The Sun, common Londoners were preoccupied with famous personalities, royal and otherwise. At the National Portrait Gallery, which features paintings and photos of illustrious Brits from the 16th century to the present, you can get a history lesson via celebrity.

I’ll admit, somewhat shamefully, to preferring to leaf through People magazine rather than the Oxford Companion to British History. So the Gallery was just up my alley, bringing to life important British figures both past and present in an easily digestible form.

With over 160,000 portraits to look at, things might initially seem a little overwhelming. But the museum is well-organized with rooms representing varying themes and time periods (e.g. science industry in the 18th century), making it educational and easy to follow. The great self-guided audio tour (£2) also helped immensely to move things along. Each picture has a corresponding number that you press on your audio device, so you can hear descriptions of selected works.

It’s always good to eat your veggies before dessert, so I started with a bit of a history lesson. I loved stumbling upon iconic portraits of luminaries like William Shakespeare, King Henry VIII, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Man oh man, were those Tudors stoic! You’d think it wouldn’t kill them to crack a smile now and then.

But the contemporary collection was pure confection for these tabloid-trained eyes. I was a kid in a celebrity candy store, scanning for sightings of the biggest stars. Lily Allen! Alan Rickman! Helen Mirren! Such fun.

Since the Gallery is devoted to cultivating the public’s understanding of portraiture in all media, you’ll find contemporary portraits rendered in everything from oil paints to digital film. Some are dead-on realistic, while others are expressionistic renderings, demonstrating how our modern notion of portraits has shifted so dramatically since the time of the Tudors. My absolute favorites included a hotter-than-hot shot of Victoria and David Beckham by Dean Freeman, a regal profile of Nigella Lawson by Tom Miller, and a Picasso-esque depiction of David Bowie by Stephen Finer.

Being around all these faces for so many hours might inspire you to snap some portraits of your own. But before you run off to join the paparazzi, cowgirl, take heed: no cameras permitted in the museum whatsoever.

Read more about National Portrait Gallery in our London Guide.

National Portrait Gallery
2 St. Martin’s Place
(44) 020-7306-0055

Click here for our full-form mobile travel guide, The Purple Passport to London

Rachel Levin contributed to this post

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