London's National Portrait

Gallery Celebrates 150 Years


The National Portrait Gallery celebrates its 150th year in 2006 with a year-long programme of special events, exhibitions and displays highlighting its past, present and future as the national collection of portraits of British sitters and as the world's leading museum of portraiture. The anniversary celebrations will include a fundraising Portrait Gala on 28 February 2006. Funds raised during 2006 will support the anniversary appeal "Collecting for the Future" which will enable the Gallery to buy important portraits for the public to enjoy. Building on their collaboration over the past three years, the National Portrait Gallery is joined by international law firm Herbert Smith as Anniversary Partner in what is one of the largest-ever law firm sponsorships in the UK.

On the occasion of its 150th Anniversary in 2006, the National Portrait Gallery will present an exhibition devoted to William Shakespeare. With portraits, costumes, manuscripts and jewellery from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it will be the biggest ever exhibition to focus on Shakespeare in his own time, drawing directly on original records relating to the playwright and his contemporaries. Many of the exhibits loaned from around the world have never been on public display until now.

In 1856 the first portrait presented to the newly founded National Portrait Gallery was a compelling painting considered to be of William Shakespeare, known as the 'Chandos' portrait. At this date Shakespeare's appearance had been a matter of national interest for around two centuries. Yet the identity of this picture is still considered unproven and today we have no certain lifetime portrait of England's most famous poet and playwright.

Alongside the 'Chandos' portrait, five other 'contender' portraits purporting to represent Shakespeare and once thought to derive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries will be displayed together for the first time. The exhibition will present the results of new technical analysis and research on several of these pictures casting new light on the search for Shakespeare's authentic appearance. A special IT presentation reconstructing the probable original appearance of the 'Chandos' portrait follows on from this research. Shakespeare's life can only be partially reconstructed, but this exhibition will uniquely also attempt to search for the Shakespeare his contemporaries knew, by looking closely at his patrons and other actors and playwrights working at this time.

    Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist *

As well as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this extraordinary group of contender portraits, this exhibition will be unparalleled in its range of exhibits including portraits of actors, playwrights and patrons, original seventeenth century costumes, jewellery, silverware and manuscripts. Among the treasures is Shakespeare's Will on loan from the National Archives for the first time. Other manuscripts record the plays performed before Shakespeare's company at the court of James I and the purchase of a house in Stratford-upon-Avon and the acquisition of a family coat of arms and the Parish Register, the single most important document for determining the essential details of Shakespeare's biography.

The drawing of the Swan Theatre the only known contemporary drawing of an Elizabethan stage (consulted closely for the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre) and loaned from Utrecht University Library is also on public display for the first time. Among the more unusual exhibits will be the skull of a bear's head found close to the Globe, which provides evidence of the close proximity of bear baiting to Shakespeare's theatres.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: 'This exhibition assembles most of the key portraits previously thought to derive from the seventeenth century and all regarded at different points as being a "contender", as a definitive image of the writer. The history of each painting plays a fascinating and vital part in the holy grail question of whether a painted portrait can ever be authenticated. They are brought together now with a range of the material from his surrounding world, relating to his life in London and Stratford-upon-Avon as well as the Elizabethan theatre and to his contemporaries.'

Jeremy Marshall, Chief Executive Officer, Credit Suisse (UK) Limited says: 'Credit Suisse is delighted to have the opportunity of sponsoring the exhibition Searching for Shakespeare at the National Portrait Gallery in a year when both institutions are celebrating their 150th anniversaries. Credit Suisse has a long tradition of supporting the arts, but this sponsorship is particularly meaningful to us as a symbol of our commitment to the UK. We are therefore proud to support something as quintessentially English as an exhibition on Shakespeare.'

A programme of conferences, events and talks will accompany Searching for Shakespeare. Peter Ackroyd will give a talk on Shakespeare's London ( April 21st) and Mark Rylance and Michael Wood will both talk on the subject of Authorship on  March 23rd. The novelist and travel writer Bill Bryson will discuss his forthcoming book on Shakespeare on April 6 th. Regular Sunday screenings include films of Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice. The Gallery will be collaborating with the University of Westminster on a one-day Symposium on Shakespeare's reputation and the Shakespeare industry on  March 18th. There will also be a two-day academic conference Shakespeare: Portraiture, Biography and the Material World (May 18-19th) jointly organized with King's College, London, that contextualizes events and relationships from Shakespeare's life including his marriage, property purchases, and the acquisition of honors and knowledge of portraits and material goods. Themes include portraiture and likeness, biography and custom, and theatrical cultures. The conference is supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

An Anniversary exhibition focusing on the Gallery's role as one of the most important present-day commissioners of portraits Icons and Idols: Commissioning Contemporary Portraits will run alongside Searching for Shakespeare. It will display a fascinating selection of some of the key commissions of the past 25 years. An accompanying publication for the Anniversary year The Portrait Now will look at the variety and range of contemporary portraiture worldwide.

In the second half of the year, the National Portrait Gallery will celebrate the work of one of Britain's most distinguished living artists. David Hockney: Portraits will focus on his portraits spanning fifty years from his earliest work right up to the most recent. The Gallery and David Hockney share a long history. In 1971 his now iconic double portrait Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, completed in that year, was exhibited for the first time in a National Portrait Gallery exhibition called Snap. It returns here for this retrospective. While portraiture has been a consistent thread running through Hockney's work, this will be the first exhibition devoted solely to the genre, and is sponsored by Burberry who also celebrate their 150th year.

Continuing its rich tradition of mounting highly acclaimed photographic exhibitions, the Gallery will present the first museum retrospective of Angus McBean (1904-1990), one of the twentieth century's most significant British portrait photographers. Angus McBean: Portraits ( July 5th -  October 22nd), will chart McBean's progress from the most important photographer of plays and players for a period of over thirty years to his large body of surrealist work that began in the late 1930s. It will include for the first time all the self-portraits he produced between 1934-1985 as well as some of the props and art works used in their composition.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland (1566-1625) *

As one of a number of special events, British composer Edward Cowie has been commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to write a work inspired by some of the National Portrait Gallery's contemporary portraits to be given its world premiere at the Gallery on  June 16th and will be recorded for future broadcast by the BBC. A timeline detailing key acquisitions and the history of the Gallery will be created for the Anniversary year and displayed in the Contemporary Galleries. It will also be made available on the website ( As well as the special exhibitions, there will be a programme of Anniversary displays throughout the Gallery during the year. A set of Royal Mail commemorative stamps with reproductions of some of the Gallery's most popular and iconic portraits will go on sale in June 2006.

Anniversary Partner Herbert Smith continues a collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery which builds on their sponsorship of two recent major exhibitions Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Lee Miller: Portraits.

David Gold, Senior Partner at Herbert Smith, Anniversary Partner, says: "Our community activities are an important part of Herbert Smith's identity. Our previous arts sponsorships have provided focal points for these activities and the firm's sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery's 150th Anniversary gives us a great opportunity over the course of a year to involve many of our community partners in the exhibitions and the events being laid on, as well as to entertain our clients and staff. We are delighted to extend our relationship with the National Portrait Gallery and to support Sandy and his colleagues in what is sure to be a successful and memorable anniversary year."

National Portrait Gallery in the USA: Searching for Shakespeare tours to the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (24 June-17 September 2006).

A fully illustrated book accompanies this exhibition by curator Dr Tarnya Cooper with essays by Marcia Pointon, James Shapiro & Stanley Wells. Price 35 (hardback). A complementary book Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries by Charles Nicholl is available now. Price 9.99

Ed. note: We are grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for providing this article, and thus, enabling us to share it with our readers. 

* All photos The National Portrait Gallery and are used with their permission.  

For further information on the National Portrait Gallery please follow this link