Philobiblon: The National Portrait Gallery: Eight of my favourite women

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The National Portrait Gallery: Eight of my favourite women

There's a curious conundrum at the heart of Britain's National Portrait Gallery. The institution collects people, as recorded by art. So as you walk around the rooms, are you looking at historic individuals, or at paintings?

These are certainly not "the best" paintings in British history; they can (by definition at least) be found next door in the National Gallery. (The strong presence of Sir Peter Lely here, and his total absence in the rooms overlooking Leicester Square demonstrate that.) Yet these are not (mostly) a photographic record, rather an image that is a blend of what the artist saw and (usually) what the sitter wanted him to see.

Yet somehow, these two sides of the galleries do come together. When I pick out my "favourite women of the NPG" I am looking at the paintings - these are the faces that through which I can find something of the woman behind them, and I like what I find. A little research reveals, however, that they were also great characters, with real achievements to their credit. Somehow you can identify, even from a flattering, fashionable portrait, those who were more than a vapid aristocrat or a lucky courtesan.

This listing is by date, which also conveniently makes a trail through the gallery, starting at the top floor and working down. It is entirely personal - by all means add your own favourites in the comments.

Mary Neville, Lady Dacre (1524-c.1576), painted by Hans Eworth, probably early in the reign of Elizabeth I, after she had succeeded in having the family title restored to her son, after her husband had been executed. Statuesque might be the polite adjective for Lady Dacre; she's painted with one double chin, which probably meant she had several. Her lush auburn hair is tightly combed behind a lavishly pearled, black velvet head-dress. She looks stern and formidable, but satisfied, like a woman who has achieved her life's work. A short biography. (Gallery 2) READ MORE


Anonymous KathyF said...

Thanks for the list; I will take it next time I go. I always liked the Bronte portrait, with Patrick painted out.

12/18/2005 09:09:00 pm  

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