Not all learning in museums is about the objects they display. In the museum learning literature it is acknowledged that people sometimes learn, "something new about each other"*. Never, for me, has this been so apparent than when I went with my dad to see Simon Schama's Face of Britain at the National Portrait Gallery. I'm in my late forties, you'd think I know him quite well by now.
As with the Grayson Perry exhibition, 'Who Are You?' at the National Portrait Gallery on last year, which you can read about here, Face of Britain is displayed over all three of the gallery's floors. My dad has been here before, he knows the form, he suggests taking the lift to the top and working our way down (the stairs). "Much easier that way."
Face of Britain looks at portraits and identity with five themes:
Power, Love, Fame, Self and People.
Walking into the room, "that's Cromwell."
"How do you know?"
"Cromwell, he is so distinctive, rugged, slightly nasty, I just know what he looks like."
I one the other hand, hadn't got a clue.
"Did you do history at school?"
"No, I hated history at school, bad teacher, it all depends on the teacher. I developed my interest in history after school."
My dad went round the National Portrait Gallery identifying people. I wasn't expecting this, hearing all he knew about history, particularly impressed by him being able to identify Kings and Queens, and in the right order.
'Power', it kind of had to be... I didn't need my dad to tell me this was Margaret Thatcher.
"That makes her look softer than she was"
"...almost vulnerable looking."
"The only time she looked like that was when she was booted out."
This is when he dropped a bombshell. Never assume you know how your closest family vote.
"What! I can't believe it. I always thought you were a ..." I can't tell you how surprised I was.
Thatcher seemed to spark quite a bit of conversation, I couldn't help but overhear.
"Apparently she kept interfering with what the artist was doing."
"Well that just about sums her up!"
The Queen. A 3D picture, a bit like one of those 3D postcards where things move. I had one where if you looked at it from different angles, giraffes moved their heads from side to side.
" I don't like it, her nose is pronounced too much."
I so wished it was one of those 3D moving pictures and she would open her eyes when stepped from side to side looking at her from different angles. It was not to be, this image was inspired by seeing the queen resting, a quick shut-eye between the official shots.
Here's another Elizabeth, the first.
No resting for her, she has a country to rule, painted under her feet, putting us firmly in our place.
My dad proves to be a mine of information. he doesn't need to read the label to know this is is George, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent.
George, despite his "serial amorous adventures", had one true love, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (Mrs). When he died George was found with her portrait in miniature around his neck.
It was also love that prompted Sir Kenelm Digby to call quickly for Van Dyck to paint Lady Venetia Digby after he found her dead in bed. He lived with this portrait by his side, day and night, but it didn't manage to fully console him.
The "great and the good, ...characters".
Simon Weston, he is part of both our consciousness, memories of the 1980s and the Falklands War.
Everyday people, from Torquay. It's near where my mum lives, I scan the photos to see if I recognise anywhere. I really don't. But am impressed with this "Torquay fishwife's" 'leg o'mutton' sleeves. What a great jacket.
These photos intrigue me. Surveillance photos of militant suffragettes, taken undercover while they were in prison. Imprisoned for damaging museum artefacts in the British Museum and the National Gallery. Their photos now hang in the National Portrait Gallery. So many questions, not least, how far would I go to stand up for women's rights? I am thankful for these women.
I pause to take a photo to send to a friend via Facebook. We're playing a game. #GuessWho?
My dad spots Nelson a mile off. I didn't realise how much of a celebrity Lady Emma Hamilton was. The mistress of one of the most famous people in Britain in the 18th century, she was "London's biggest female celebrity". Many of her portraits were reproduced in etchings to "provide the public with affordable portraits". Etchings, social media, has much changed?
This is the "earliest known oil self-portrait painted in England". It's tiny. Painted whilst inprisoned at the Tower of London, Gerlach Flicke also painted his fellow cellmate, Henry Strangwish, who was in for piracy.
Frank Auerbach. "very clever scribbles". Despite looking "scribbled", perhaps rushed, Auerbach worked on this painting for six years, continually rubbing bits out. Possibly a testament to that feeling of looking in the mirror and not really being happy at what you see.
Dame Laura Knight in her studio. I love this painting. She's there, hard at work in a life-drawing class, establishing herself as an artist, in a place where previously she had been barred, for being a woman.
David Bomberg, we read, went to the Slade school of art.
"Society of Lithographers, Artists, Designers and Engravers."
"No, not that Slade, the art college. But anyway, how do you know that?"
"My father was a member, a lithographer."
"I didn't know that, I only remember him retired."
"Yes he was a printer, worked in the Caledonian Road, Kings Cross. He was at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1940, getting ready to go to France in the Second World War, when he was told that he was not going because they needed him to be a forger, probably to help with the resistance. I don't know exactly what he worked on as he'd signed the official secrets act and never told his family. I've found all this out since he died."
"He could raw a perfect circle free-hand."
This was my grandfather from an ordinary semi in Wembley. I had no idea.
Simon Schama tells us that Face of Britain is about identity, portraits, discovering who people are. As well as learning about the illustrious on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, I was thrilled to learn more about my family.
Simon Schama's Face of Britain is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 4th January 2016. Free admission. Details on their website here.
Did you #GuessWho?
*Falk and Dierking, 1992