Showing posts with label National Portrait Gallery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label National Portrait Gallery. Show all posts

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Face of Britain: National Portrait Gallery

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?

William Shakespeare

*Falk and Dierking, 1992

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Who are you?

At the National Portrait Gallery in London
Grayson Perry asks us, "Who are you?"

"Who am I?"
I'm a mum, I like going to exhibitions, I love museums and galleries, I watch TV,
I like going out, occasionally I draw and make things, I like Grayson Perry.
I watched Grayson Perry on the telly, his series of the same name,
So I went with my kids to see his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
My fifteen year old had watched the programmes with me.
At eleven the other two had gone to bed by the time it was on,
so they weren't keen but I had promised them hot chocolate and that we would also see
the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square next door.

For this exhibition, there's a route, a journey around the first floor. 
Grayson Perry talks about identity in terms of a journey,
"I have attempted to portray the character of the identity journey
they (the subjects) are facing."

You begin at Grayson Perry's self portrait, 'Map of Days'.
A self-portrait as a fortified town with walls that he suggests are his skin.
I notice that the walls are thick, heavy lines.

Very near the Map of Days was a Families Activity Base
where my younger two were given sketchbooks and a pencil each. They were happy. 

From 'A Map of Days' you head to Grayson Perry's 'Comfort Blanket'.

All things British.
Grayson Perry gives you something to "wrap yourself up in".
Things "we love, and love to hate".
I'm British, is this me?

I've never been to Number 10, Offa's Dyke or Glastonbury.

I do love a 'cuppa' though.

I queue with the best of them.

I've never met the Queen.

So who are these people in this exhibition?

'Melanie, Georgina and Sarah'
"Three women, big and proud, who want their size to be seen as positive."
Their dresses are decorated with images of food and women.
Food and self-image are so intertwined, I get that.
I don't want my daughters to get that though, they will soon enough.
Food can be glorious and so can women's bodies.

'Modern Family'.
Male parents with a mixed-race daughter.

 Grayson Perry tells us that they teach us an important lesson,
that parenting is hard work, needs thought, is not something you can take for granted.
You don't often notice good parenting, it just happens.
But there are times when you high five yourself,
little moments when you could burst with love and pride for your kids.
This family appears to be revered on a pot, canonised, enthroned in the clouds.
Hurrah for Grayson Perry, celebrating good parenting.

Kids are part of the next story too.
Four kids, I know what that involves.

'The Ashford Hijab'.
Mum, Kayleigh is a convert to Islam,

and on this hijab, Grayson Perry shows a journey from the temple of consumerism,

to Mecca across a busy road.

Watching this couple in the TV series was very moving.

'Memory Jar'. 
Alzheimer's disease, robbing this couple of memory and identity.

Memories, family photos, are being snipped away.
The thought of either myself or my husband losing memories of our life together
is something I find hard to deal with.

In our family, an older generation, some memories are slipping away, it's disconcerting.
Though I've never thought of it as an act of vandalism, ravaging with scissors,
but more of a river gradually and slowly washing away the bank.

I have to mention 'The Huhne Vase'.
Chris Huhne found fame (infamy) perverting the cause of justice,
all over a speeding offence.
Surely I can't relate to this? 

I loved what Grayson Perry had to say about this story.
"I have smashed the pot and had it repaired with gold
to symbolise that vulnerability might be an asset..."

I'm not that broken, but we all know what it is to have cracks.
But imagine being repaired, put back together with gold?
Vulnerability, gleaming and attractive, something beautiful.
As a friend said about this work,
"Grayson Perry has been very kind."
I'm not sure, having watched the programme, that Chris Huhne really got that.

As for my kids identity, for now anyway.
Not on a pot, a blanket or a hijab, those sketchbooks were very revealing.
My son, asked a new question.
"What is your story?"

He's not interested in identity, he wants genres, characters, main events.

My daughter made a list.
A visual list, collecting little bits of Grayson Perry's work.
The Queen's eye, a horse's head and The Earl of Essex.

Above are just a few of the people Grayson Perry asked, "Who are you?"
To see more, see the exhibition for yourself at the National Portrait Gallery
on until 15th march 2015.
Details on their website here.

The question remains: Who are you?

Staying with the National Portrait Gallery, I have to show this lady,
she has helped formed my identity,
as a woman,
as a voter.

Emmeline Pankhurst 1858-1928.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Tea and Portraits?

Should you ever admit to popping into a gallery just for a cup of tea?
Well it wasn't just for the tea.
"I know a cafe with beautiful rooftop views", I suggested.

We had tea and pastries at the National Portrait Gallery, on our way to this exhibition,
where there was no buffet car.
Anyway Crossrail weren't providing refreshments, only archaeology. 

I was feeling a little guilty,
not paying any attention to the portraits, 
heading straight to the Portrait Restaurant,
intent on breakfast with a view.

Then we came out of the lift on our way down and spotted this.

We got sidetracked.
Nearly three and a half meters high.
Four small people in a huge room?
A painting with an air of informality yet King George V is standing to attention?
Why is the Prince of Wales standing behind the sofa?
A family portrait not commissioned by the family themselves?
And where are the other three princes?

I felt better, less guilty.
I had looked at a painting.
So the visit hadn't just been all about breakfast after all.

Paintings and breakfast are available at the National Portrait Gallery.
Details on their website here.

Remember to keep your eyes peeled when coming out of the lifts!

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