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What to See at the National Portrait Gallery London: Must-Visit Exhibits

Nestled in the heart of London’s bustling Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery offers a unique and captivating experience for art history enthusiasts and casual visitors alike. As the world’s first portrait gallery, this cultural institution boasts an impressive collection of portraits, photographs, prints, and drawings that capture the essence and spirit of notable British figures throughout history. From royalty and politicians to artists and sports stars, you’ll find an array of stunning works that reveal the fascinating stories behind some of the most influential people in British history.

The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856, and today, it continues to provide an unparalleled journey into the lives of those who have shaped Britain’s past and present. Upon arrival, you’ll be amazed by the variety of artistic styles and mediums on display. Make sure to carve out enough time to explore the gallery’s many rooms and exhibitions, as there’s truly something for everyone here. With free entry, there’s no excuse not to visit this iconic London attraction and get lost in the world of portraiture.

Key Takeaways

  • The National Portrait Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, offers a unique glimpse into the lives of influential British figures
  • The gallery’s broad collection covers a wide range of artistic styles and mediums, appealing to both art enthusiasts and casual visitors
  • With free admission, it’s an unmissable London attraction that deserves ample time for exploration

If you want to maximise your time whilst seeing the highlights of the British Museum, check out our British museum guided tour to tap into the experience and expertise of our Blue Badge Guides. 

History of the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery in London has a rich history that dates back to its foundation by an act of Parliament in 1856. The gallery has been housed in several locations before settling in its present Italian Renaissance-style building designed by Ewan Christian, which opened in 1895/961.

The building has seen numerous extensions and renovations throughout the years. In 1933, the gallery was expanded, and in 2000, it underwent another major extension. Further renovations of various galleries took place throughout the 1980s and ’90s and continued into the 2020s1.

The gallery’s collection focuses on portraiture of famous and historically significant British people. It houses a vast number of paintings, sculptures, and photographs, spanning from the Tudor period to the present day. One highlight of the gallery’s programme is the BP Portrait Award, one of the world’s most prestigious art awards, which recognises the talent of both newcomers and established artists.

As you explore the National Portrait Gallery, take the time to appreciate the building’s architecture, as well as the impressive collection of portraits that tell the fascinating stories of Britain’s history and people.

Welcome to the National Portrait Gallery London

National Portrait Gallery Highlights

Monarchs throughout history

There are plenty of portraits on display showing past and present monarchs. Let’s run through some of our favourite pieces and the stories behind them.

King Henry VIII and King Henry VII – The Whitehall Cartoon – Hans Holbein the Younger

3rd floor, room 1

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the younger

This drawing served as a preliminary sketch for one of history’s most iconic representations of personal authority. Painted on a wall within Whitehall Palace, the portrait aimed to awe viewers with the sheer majesty of Henry VIII. Crafted by the renowned German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, also known as the ‘King’s Painter,’ the final composition included Henry VIII, his third wife Jane Seymour, as well as his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Regrettably, the mural was lost in a fire in 1698. At the time of Holbein’s work, Henry VIII had amassed an unprecedented level of control over his subjects, becoming not just a king to be obeyed but an idol to be revered, as described by the French ambassador.

Queen Elizabeth I – Unknown artist

3rd floor, room 1

Queen Elizabeth I

At the youthful age of 25, Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1559, becoming England’s second queen regnant. During her coronation, she donned the robes initially created for her half-sister, Mary, five years prior. This stylized portrait draws inspiration from the imagery seen in legal documents, where Elizabeth’s flowing hair is reminiscent of the style traditionally worn by queens consort during their coronations. However, what sets her apart is her possession of the orb and sceptre, symbolizing her distinct authority as a queen regnant. This painting is believed to have been crafted for one of the annual celebrations commemorating Elizabeth’s accession, a tradition observed on November 17 throughout her reign.

King Charles I – Daniel Mytens

3rd floor, room 4

Charles I - Daniel Mytens

This painting captures Charles I, a passionate and well-informed art enthusiast and collector during the early years of his reign. While Charles exhibited unusual devotion as a husband and father for a monarch of his era, his limited abilities to navigate political and religious tensions fueled wars across his realms, prompting his family’s exile to the Continent as he led the Royalist forces against the Parliamentarians. In the end, the Royalists were defeated, leading to Charles’s trial on charges of traitorously waging war against the Parliament and its people. His execution took place on January 30, 1649, outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall.

The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace – John Lavery

2nd floor, room 19

George V and the Royal Family

In this grand portrait, the family of King George V is captured at Buckingham Palace and painted just months before the outbreak of World War I. During this turbulent period, Lavery’s serene depiction of a confident Royal Family likely reassured viewers. However, within two decades, the young boy in the portrait, Prince Edward, would go on to jeopardize the throne as King Edward VIII when he abdicated his responsibilities.

Her Majesty in Robes of the British Empire – Pietro Annigoni

2nd floor, room 28

Queen Elizabeth II - Pietro Annigoni

This portrait depicts the beloved late Queen Elizabeth II. It was commissioned by the trustees of the gallery and it took 18 sitting over a ten-month period to create this portrait. It was a second portrait of Elizabeth II created by the artist and in this new composition, the Queen appeared stark and monumental, reflecting the artist’s intent to emphasize her role as a monarch grappling with the weight of her responsibilities, rather than portraying her as a film star. The unveiling of this portrait in 1970 sparked significant press and public interest in a monarch who helped shape British history.

HM King Charles III – Nadav Kander

floor 0, room 33

King Charles III - Nadav Kander

Characterized by its imposing scale, close framing, and sombre backdrop, this powerful portrait of King Charles III conveys a profound blend of regal dignity and human fragility. It captures the essence of the Prince of Wales’s unique predicament as the longest-serving heir in British history, awaiting his ascent to the British throne. Notably, this image was the cover of TIME magazine’s November 4, 2013 issue under the title ‘The Forgotten Prince,’ serving as a poignant representation of his long-anticipated reign.

Portraits of famous figures from British history

The gallery is full of portraits showing famous people from all walks of life, artists, writers, scientists, politicians, military personnel and much more. Our favourite way to experience them is to stroll through the rooms and see who you can recognise, but if you struggle look out for some historical figures from our list below.

William Shakespeare – associated with John Taylor

3rd floor, room 3

William Shakespeare - John Taylor

This portrait is possibly the only portrait taken while Shakespeare was still alive. It was also the first portrait the gallery purchased back in 1856. Working initially as an actor and later as a playwright, he helped reshape the perception of plays, as demonstrated by the lasting influence of his collected works in the “First Folio” published in 1623.

Sir Isaac Newton – Sir Godfrey Kneller

3rd floor, room 9

Sir Issac Newton - Sir Godfrey Kneller

Isaac Newton a towering figure in the realm of science, is renowned for his theory of universal gravitation, famously inspired by a falling apple. Many of his groundbreaking insights, which laid the foundation for modern science, emerged during his self-imposed isolation in rural Lincolnshire in 1665-6. Newton’s influential works, “Principia Mathematica” (1687) and “Opticks” (1704), shaped the course of scientific understanding, and his leadership at the Royal Society, culminating in a knighthood by Queen Anne in 1705, solidified his legacy.

Charles Darwin – John Collier

2nd floor, room 19

Darwin’s intensive exploration of the natural world led to his groundbreaking theory of evolution through natural selection, challenging the prevailing belief in divine creation. In 1859, he introduced this transformative theory in “On the Origin of Species,” receiving both acclaim and vehement opposition, particularly from religious groups.

Stephen Hawking – Frederick George Rees Cuming

2nd floor, room 28

Stephen Hawking - Frederick George Rees Cuming

Stephen Hawking made groundbreaking contributions to mathematics, theoretical physics, and cosmology, aspiring to comprehend the universe’s fundamental questions of existence and its nature. Despite being diagnosed with motor neurone disease at 21, which eventually left him paralyzed and without speech, he continued to communicate using an electronic voice synthesizer. This portrait, personally commissioned by Hawking, was lauded by his family for encapsulating his spirit and inner dignity

Dame Judi Dench – Alessandro Raho

1st floor, room 30

Dame Judy Dench - by Alessandro Raho

Dame Judi Dench, one of the most renowned actors in Britain, has portrayed a wide range of characters, from Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to her iconic role as “M” in the James Bond films. However, Raho chose to capture a different facet of the actor, presenting her in her everyday attire, unembellished and without any props. Raho’s artistic process involves capturing hundreds of photographs, yet the portrait maintains a painterly quality, creating a soft, shimmering tonal effect that captures the essence of the moment he observed while she waited in the National Portrait Gallery’s foyer, initially unaware of his presence.

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Plan Your Visit

When you plan your visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London, make sure to include the nearby attractions of Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery and the West End. The Gallery is easily accessible from Charing Cross and Embankment stations, providing convenient transport links for your trip.

Tickets and Opening Hours

The National Portrait Gallery is open daily, offering ample opportunities to explore its diverse collection. Admission to the museum is usually free, but special exhibitions may require tickets. Keep an eye on their website for the most recent information on ticket prices and availability.

Guided Tours and Audio Guides

To get the most out of your visit to the National Portrait Gallery, consider joining one of our private guided tours. These tours provide fascinating insights into the collection and the history of the people depicted in the portraits. Alternatively, you can opt for an audio guide to explore the gallery at your own pace. Visit the Gallery’s website for more details on tour schedules and audio guide availability.

Exploring the extensive Collection Online

If you can’t make it to the Gallery in person or want to continue exploring the collection from home, visit the National Portrait Gallery’s website. This comprehensive resource offers access to thousands of portraits, as well as detailed information about the artists and the individuals portrayed. Dive into this rich online collection and discover the tales behind some of the UK’s most remarkable figures.

What are the highlights of the National Portrait Gallery?

The National Portrait Gallery boasts a vast permanent collection spanning more than 40 rooms and three floors, featuring paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures dating as far back as the 13th century. Highlights of the collection include portraits of British monarchs, literary figures, and renowned artists.

Which famous portraits are housed in the gallery?

The National Portrait Gallery is home to an array of famous portraits. Among them, you can find iconic images of Queen Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, and even modern celebrities like Sir Paul McCartney and David Beckham.

How long does a visit to the National Portrait Gallery typically take?

The duration of your visit to the National Portrait Gallery depends on your personal interests and the amount of time you choose to spend exploring its vast collections. A typical visit may last anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, allowing you to engage with the artwork at your leisure.

What are the opening times of the National Portrait Gallery?

The National Portrait Gallery is open daily from 10:30 am to 6:00 pm, with extended hours on Fridays and Saturdays until 9:00 pm. You can find more information on their official website.

What special exhibitions are currently on display?

Check out our section just above about special exhibitions currently on display or take a look at the special exhibitions page for the most up-to-date information on current and upcoming events.

Are there guided tours available at the gallery?

Yes, we provide private guided tours at the National Portrait Gallery. Alternatively, you can explore the gallery independently on a self-led tour or with a multimedia guide. For more information on booking tours and multimedia guides, please contact us.

About the author

Denisa holds the highest UK qualification for tourist guiding, the Blue Badge. She also holds a Management in Tourism degree and a National Tour guiding certificate for the Czech Republic. Denisa’s employment history has covered many roles within the tourism sector, she couples this with the ability to speak several languages. Denisa runs our customer-facing business, she frequently enjoys days spent guiding clients and authors our blogs.

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