Gallery of a nation in portraits

Some portraits seem symbolic. That of Edward, Duke of Windsor, who abdicated the British throne in 1936 before his coronation as Edward VIII, is unfinished. Portraits can be prophetic, as in the case of Philip II of Spain, husband of Mary Tudor. More than a quarter of a century before the actual 1588 event, he appears quite capable of sending the Spanish Armada against his sister-in-law, Elizabeth I.

Hindsight can heighten the poignancy of portraits. The countenance of Charles I, for example, doesn't reveal a nature so uncompromising that it would cause him to be beheaded for his beliefs -- as he was in 1649, not far from where the portrait is ensconced.

In virtually every instance portraits are interesting, for faces hold a fascination for us all.

The opportunity to put faces to the names of the glorious and notorious figures of Britain's past awaits you at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Visitors come face to face with the people in Britain who, in each era, helped frame the future. Now, those individuals themselves are framed -- in gilded wood.

The National Portrait Gallery, founded in 1856, was conceived on the assumption that portraits provide the most vivid and tangible link between ourselves and the great personalities of the past; its collection of more than 7 ,000 portraits, in many media, is the most comprehensive portrait survey of historical personalities to be found anywhere in the world.

There are two standards for the admission of a portrait to the gallery. The first is the eminence of the sitter. The difficulties inherent in determining which living subjects are worthy of being included were resolved by barring -- until recently -- the admission of sitters, save the sovereign and his or her consort, until at least five years after death.

The second standard for admission is the portrait's authenticity as a contemporary likeness of the sitter. The pedigree of a portrait is carefully examined for line of ownership and the circumstances of its execution.

Through such documentation we are able to know much about a particular portrait. Take, for example, that of William Shakespeare by an unknown artist, circa 1610. Though not fully documented -- there is a period of unrecorded ownership in the 17th century -- it can be traced back without a break to 1719, and before then to the Restoration actor, Betterton. The portrait, originally recorded as belonging to Sir William Davenant, who claimed to be Shakespeare's illegitimate son or godson, is the only one with any claim to be a representative of Shakespeare from life.

The National Portrait Gallery moved to its present quarters, just off Trafalgar Square behind the National Gallery, in 1896. The collection, with dates and biographical details by each portrait, is displayed chronologically, beginning at the top floor with the Tudors. Each room covers a particular period or theme, including the Elizabethans, Charles I and the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Hanoverian succession, the struggle for America, Great Britain at war, and the eras of exploration and expansion leading to the Empire.

The most popular portraits are those that represent royalty. Within this group, the hands-down favorite is Henry VIII. There are several portraits of him -- as well as ones of his wives. Before our eyes, he becomes an older, heavier, though not less forceful figure, as shown in the magnificent Hans Holbein full-size cartoon, or working drawing.

The portrait of his father, Henry VII, painted in 1505, was commissioned for Margaret of Austria, whom Henry was considering marrying. Margaret rejected the King, but kept the portrait.

It is ironic that personalities who once fought for opposing sides are now forced to stare across a room at each other: Charles I and Cromwell; The Duke of Wellington and Napoleon; and George III and George Washington. If the inclusion of George Washington in the gallery of British greats comes as a surprise, remember that, until the 13 Colonies declared their independence, all Americans were British subjects.

Who's a hero is often merely a matter of perspective. Scottish-born John Paul Jones, known grandly in the United States as the "Father of the American Navy," is identified here as "seaman, adventurer, smuggler, and slave trader." Perhaps the British are jealous that Jones spent his illustrious career in any navy other than their own.

British naval figures have always captured hearts as heroes in the sea-surrounded kingdom. Horatio Nelson, both victor and victim of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, is still a schoolboy's ideal. Other seafaring figures here are the dashing Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook, whose portrait was painted at the Cape of Good Hope in 1776 during one of his scientific expeditions.

The personalities portrayed at the National Portrait Gallery cover the entire scope of the British experience: artists and architects; dukes and dandies; mistresses and musicians; prime ministers and playwrights. There's Lawrence of Arabia, Charles Darwin and both Gilbert and Sullivan; Keynes the economist, General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh.

some particularly interesting portraits have been painted by family members: the Bronte sisters by brother Branwell, and Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra. There are also self-portraits: William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and Edward Lear.

The space for 20th-century sitters is being expanded. The acute need for additional space for this century's celebrities arises because of the recent dropping of the requirement that sitters be deceased, the advent of mass media that propels many more people to prominence, and a decision by the National Portrait Gallery to begin a serious collection of photographic portraits, which have a special authenticity of revelation that simply cannot be matched by the artist's brush.

A current gallery exhibit of photographic portraits by American Arnold Newman , commissioned for its permanent collection, has caused some controversy over the selection of subjects. Included are British men and women in many walks of life whose contributions are considered to reveal 20th-century British society as effectively as the people in the portraits from other periods reveal theirs. In addition to former prime ministers, scientists, and writers are union leaders , fashion designer Mary Quant, a cricket player, and Sir Freddie Laker.

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