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The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London reopens on 22 June after a complete rehang of the famous faces on its walls. The redevelopment of the historic institution’s interiors, along with a total rethink of its collection, ensures it is now a “gallery for everyone,” the NPG’s chief curator, Alison Smith, says.

The NPG embarked on the £41.3m project, led by Jamie Fobert Architects, in June 2020, when the UK was in a state of lockdown due to the Covid19 pandemic. When the building reopens its doors three years on, it will have a new north-facing entrance and revamped collection displays comprising more than 1,000 works.

The rehang will lead visitors on “a walk through British history, culture and society, from the Plantagenets through to the present day”, Smith tells The Art Newspaper, promising more contemporary art, a broader range of media and more diverse sitters who better reflect the audiences of today.

A cross-section rendering of the building, which includes new display areas that had previously been offices

Just as the gallery’s 1896 building was “in desperate need of refurbishment” following its last expansion into the Ondaatje Wing in 2000, the collection was looking “stale” and calling out for an update “in terms of the kind of sitter we represented, styles of portraiture and the way we wrote the interpretation texts”, Smith says. “We needed to make the whole experience more welcoming for our visitors.”

One of the first portraits visitors will encounter in the transformed NPG will be a large tapestry by the Kenyan-British artist Michael Armitage paying tribute to four refuse collectors the artist observed at work during lockdown. Armitage’s John Barry, O Kelly, Sonny and Richard Moore (2022) will hang in a new ground-level gallery called History Makers, devoted to recent acquisitions and commissions, including portraits of the rapper Stormzy, anti-racism campaigner Doreen Lawrence and footballer Lucy Bronze. The work also marks a milestone in the history of a gallery long associated with grand paintings of grandee sitters, hinting at several new evolutions in the art on show from the world’s largest collection of portraits.

When we were established, it was the sitter who was more important than the artist. Now we’ve changed that around

Alison Smith, chief curator

The NPG got its start in less egalitarian times. Earl Stanhope’s 1856 motion to the House of Lords proposed the formation of a British gallery of portraits of “men honourably distinguished in war, in statesmanship, in art or science” that “would afford, not only great pleasure, but much instruction to the industrious classes”. The plan was approved by Queen Victoria. The first portrait acquired by the gallery was of William Shakespeare.

“When we were established in 1856, we were really talking about eminent individuals. The idea of people who have made an impact, and of celebrity, has changed over time,” Smith says. “We’re also talking about people who are caught up in history. There are very many different ways in which people have made a contribution to the United Kingdom we know today.”

Redressing imbalance

The shift from men of honour to people of impact will bring many more portraits of women to the galleries, redressing decades of “gender imbalance”. At least in the post-1900 galleries, the proportion of works on view depicting women will rise to 48% (compared to 37% before the closure). “A lot of our collecting activity has been on building up our representation of female sitters over time, not just modern and contemporary, but also in the historic collection,” Smith says. “We’re also bringing works out of store which haven’t been shown before.”

Areas previously dominated by male sitters, such as science and technology, will be transformed, for instance, by the addition of the “first computer programmer” Ada Lovelace (via a loan from the Government Art Collection) and the electrical engineer Caroline Haslett, whose campaigning for domestic appliances “revolutionised the home for women”.

Further efforts came through Reframing Narratives, a partnership with the Chanel Culture Fund that aims to raise the visibility of women at the NPG and challenge gender stereotypes. A new 8m-long mural by Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake, commissioned through the Chanel fund, will feature 130 women, from the ancient warrior queen Boudicca to Jane Austen and the singer Amy Winehouse.

Another priority has been advancing the representation of sitters from ethnic minorities, which has increased from 3% to 11% in the rehang. A triumphant addition to the historic galleries on the third floor will be Portrait of Mai (Omai) (around 1776) by Joshua Reynolds, one of the earliest portraits of a person of colour in British art. Having joined the crew of Captain Cook in Tahiti, Mai was the first Polynesian to visit the UK and he became the toast of British high society. The NPG raised £25m to buy the £50m painting jointly with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, making it the biggest acquisition in the gallery’s history.

The NPG’s curators have had to think creatively to bring in “overlooked histories and missing sitters” as they contend with centuries of racial inequity in the subjects deemed worthy of British portraiture. The revamped displays “try to give equal status to a work on paper as a grand society portrait”, Smith says. Missing sitters will also be present through contemporary art interventions, photographic enlargements and digital interpretation.

Visitors can view the earliest known image of a Black Briton, the Tudor court trumpeter John Blanke, on a screen near paintings of his royal patrons, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Contemporary loans will reflect the importance of Black figures in the abolition of slavery, such as Lubaina Himid’s depiction of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture from the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and Elizabeth Peyton’s portrait of African American activist Frederick Douglass from Gladstone Gallery. Omoba Aina, an enslaved west African Yoruba princess who became a ward of Queen Victoria under the name Sarah Forbes Bonetta, will appear in photographic portraits and a lightbox enlargement in the Empire and Resistance gallery.

Adding a historical context

At a time of reckoning—and deep political divisions—over Britain’s imperial past, the displays will acknowledge the people who were enslaved alongside the colonialists and the merchants who profited from slavery. The NPG’s anti-racism pledge, published in August 2020, included a commitment to be “transparent about the racism and exploitation associated with certain sitters and works”.

Revisionist approaches to colonial history have since become a lightning-rod issue, with the UK culture department advocating a “retain and explain” policy for monuments and museum objects. Smith stresses that the gallery is “not cancelling or erasing” the beneficiaries of Empire, but adding greater historical context to their portraits.

Moving away from the “potted biographies” approach of the old displays, the rehang will do more both to contextualise sitters and to foreground artists and the “art of portrait-making”. “When we were established, it was the sitter who was more important than the artist,” Smith says. “But now we’ve changed that around, we’re also a gallery about the art of portraiture. When we commission and acquire today, there’s perhaps now an equal emphasis on the artist and the sitter.”

Contemporary portraiture will now have dedicated galleries in the restored East Wing (renamed the Weston Wing after a £6.5m donation from the Garfield Weston Foundation), which was closed to the public and used as office space for 40 years. And interspersed through the earlier chronology will be themed rooms for Tudor panel painting, miniatures and printmaking from the 16th to 18th centuries and the “photographic revolution”. The curators are drawing on the NPG’s collection of more than 220,000 photographs, boosting photography from 4% to 29% of portraits across the galleries.

Photography will remain a mainstay of the temporary exhibition programme. The double billing of reopening shows goes to previously unseen photographs by Paul McCartney which offer “a private insight into the world of the Beatles in 1964, just as they were launching themselves in the States” (until 1 October), and to Yevonde, a pioneer of colour photography “who should be better known as one of the great British photographers” (until 15 October), Smith says. An exhibition next spring will pair Francesca Woodman with Julia Margaret Cameron to explore symbolism and storytelling in photographs made a century apart.

Sculpture will also play a stronger role in the future NPG, with displays including Thomas J. Price’s Reaching Out (2021), of a woman looking down at her phone—an acknowledgement of the digital devices that have made portraiture a ubiquitous part of modern life.

“Everyone has a direct relation to portraiture: we all take photographs, we all take selfies, people have photographs and paintings of ancestors,” Smith says. The NPG is certainly hoping to build on that sense of belonging with the reopening. All the changes add up to a gallery that “will feel more lively”—and more like “a conversation between the visitor and the subjects represented on the walls”.

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