Monday, December 18, 2017

Not a fan of the new hang of the Early 20th Century Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery

One of my favourite galleries at the National Portrait Gallery is the early 20th Century Gallery. It's about people who were mostly dead before I was born but whose names often cropped up in terms of culture (art / music / literature / drama) or the endeavours of the military, the statesmen and the social reformers.

Thing is I'm not sure I like the rehang. Take a look at my photographs and I think a lot of you who are familiar with the Gallery will see what I mean.
Windows have been replaced with a wall - to provide more hanging space
The creation of these new galleries has been made possible by a grant from the DCMS/ Wolfson Museums & Galleries Improvement Fund, and sees a number of recently acquired portraits go on public display for the first time.
National Portrait Gallery - Early 20th Century Galleries - refurbishment of rooms 30 and 31
It now looks like a very old fashioned gallery whereas before I always thought of it as quite modern (just as the 20th century broke away from Victoriana) and a major relief from all the heavy duty traditional galleries in most of the rest of the National Portrait Gallery.  To my mind there has been no attempt to make it seem in any way in tune with the design and decor of the period from 1900 up to 1960 - a time in which there were massive changes in the way things "looked".

It also had light (i.e. windows) and ways of displaying the art which meant you saw the art but not the thing it was attached to.

Now the windows have been blocked out to provide additional hanging space and everything is hung as if they are regimented "stuffed shirts" - which is precisely what I don't like about the way that many portraits are sometimes hung in portrait galleries.

Plus it's got an overwhelmingly depressing feeling associated with far too much grey and brown.

Very grey and brown....
One area I do think they've improved is the military corner devoted to the "high ups" in the First World War. However pre 1950 Britain also included the Second World War and this is much less evident.  Maybe nobody did the portraiture to compete with that completed for the First World War?

The Army and Navy - life-size First World War group portraits reunited for the first time in decades
Three life-size First World War group portraits, considered the Gallery’s most important commission made shortly before the armistice on 11 November 1918, will also be reunited for the first time in decades. The recently restored, Naval Officers of World War 1 by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope, will sit alongside its companion pieces, General Officers of World War 1 by John Singer Sargent and Statesmen of World War 1 by Sir James Guthrie in an entirely new room devoted to the First World War.

Plus individuals at war

The Statesmen and the First Lord of the Admiralty during WW1 (Churchill)

It also takes a very chronological approach to portraits whereas before portraits were grouped by topic
Split into four main periods: The early 20th century; The Great War; The interwar years and the Second World War and Post-War recovery, the portraits on display show individuals from various walks of life depicted at similar moments, in an era of radical and rapid change.
This is Room 30 (and the portraits on display) - this focusses on the Great War from 1914 to 1918 and others from that period of time

....and this is Room 31 (and the portraits on display) - which focuses on 1914 - 1959 and:
  • The First World War
  • The Interwar Years: 1920s and 1930s
  • The Second World War and Post-war Renewal
I think the thing it made me realise was just how few portraits there are of quite significant periods of the last century - and how neglected certain aspects of the country have been.

For example, where are all the manufacturers?  What about the inventors (Barnes Wallis and John Logie Baird get a look in but as for others...?

To me it comes across as a cultural elitist perspective of the cultural elite!

....and as for diversity - well there's plenty of well known members of the LGBT community - but you're not going to see many if any black faces.

To me it feels like a hang which lacked a critical critique from those outside the curatorial community.

artists of the early 20th century

writers of the early 20th century

Group about to have a lunchtime "talk"

Early Lucian Freud and a bust of a young Lucian get a look in for the first time
‘The 20th century was an era of breath-taking changes. An individual born in 1900 occupied a world that saw the advent of powered flight and, within a lifetime, the conquest of the moon. Society broke free from Victorian constraints and the independent status of women was hugely important. The newly hung galleries tell these amazing stories. They bring together portraits of the men and women who were responsible for the developments that transformed Britain by ushering in the modern world. From the Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton to the Pop artist Pauline Boty, in their different ways they are all inspirational pioneers.’Paul Moorhouse, former Senior Curator of the 20th Century Collection at the National Portrait Gallery , London and curator of the new galleries
‘We are delighted to be opening our transformed early 20th century galleries to the public, with a completely new hang and interpretation of the Collection, and we are grateful to the DCMS/ Wolfson Museums & Galleries Improvement Fund for their support. Visitors will be able to walk through the first half of a century that saw radical and sweeping changes, while the juxtaposition of portraits from the same era reveals the range of artistic styles that co-existed at the same time. This new approach will help inform our major transformation project, Inspiring People, which will see a comprehensive re-display of our Collection for the first time across all our galleries, from the Tudors to now. ’Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London
I recommend you go and take a look for yourself and decide for yourself whether the new hang is an improvement.

Personally, I'm now dreading what's going to happen to the re-display of the rest of the galleries......


  1. I haven't visited yet so it wouldn't be fair to be too negative about the hanging but from the photos displayed it looks like the works are hung too close to each other and the descriptions [white cards] are a bit too big and bright. To say that less is more is easy and curating, editing and culling a show like this is never going to be easy but perhaps a rotating exhibition where smaller selections are displayed, for example, on a quarterly basis might work better. Each decade or more frequently, if affordable the entire collection could be brought together in an external pop up space to draw attention to it's significance and subsequently draw greater numbers to the ongoing exhibit at the NPG.

  2. I will go and have a look but from the photos, I agree, it looks very old fashioned and stodgy. I wonder if it will entice young people to wander in. I do hope that Laura Knight and other significant female artists are represented in what appears to be a heavily male dominated space. I understand the problems galleries face in finding space to show their collections but to pile paintings high on a wall restricts access to so many people eg the visually impaired, wheel chair users and often the elderly. Lighting is often reflected on the surface of paintings the higher they are placed on a wall, so not really a fan of that. Sorry if I sound negative.

  3. Loza - I think you're only echoing other thoughts which occurred to me

    Cody - I think your notion of using at least some of the space for an area which rotated portraits on a theme is a really interesting one and I think it's a pity that the refurbishment of the gallery didn't embrace this idea.


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