Taking full advantage of the exceptional collection of the National Portrait Gallery, historian Simon Schama has in this exhibition created a cross-period exploration of the history of Britain through portraiture. Focusing on the themes of Power, Love, Fame, Self and People, Schama poses intriguing questions about what makes a successful portrait and what this tells us about the individual and collective psyche of the time. Engaging with works ranging from Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Alice Lidell to Anthony van Dyck’s posthumous portrait of Lady Venetia Digby to Yousuf Karsh’s iconic defiant wartime image of Winston Churchill, the exhibition is spread across five separate rooms within the Gallery. This dispersal of the key works throughout the rest of the collection might at first seem a downside to the visitor experience, but, in fact, it actually aids the overall message and intention of Schama’s exhibition. One finds themselves applying Schama’s questions and ideas to works outside of the exhibition as you pass unrelated pieces on your way to the next exhibition space. The corresponding 5-part BBC series of the same title is definitely a must-see (either before or after a visit) as it fleshes out the exhibition exceptionally well, providing the viewer with the occasionally tragic, often humorous and always fascinating back stories of how certain iconic portraits came into existence.
This article was written for the December/January edition for the paper. It features content appropriate to the intended date of publication, and hence it might not be possible to visit or see the events/objects mentioned anymore. We apologise for the delay in the publication of the article.