12 portraits at the National Portrait Gallery for Americans

The interior of the National Portrait Gallery London

Here is self-guided tour of 12 key portraits at the National Portrait Gallery for Americans in London.   The National Portrait Gallery (NP)G is a haven of peace compared to its next door neighbour; the National Gallery.  It also has a rather nice rooftop cocktail bar with views over London.   Both galleries are on Trafalgar Square.  We hope you enjoy your visit.

Where we have covered a portrait in a previous post, we have linked to it.

Stop 1: Tudor Westminster (Room 2): Elizabeth I

Stop 2: Civil War (Room 5): Oliver Cromwell

Stop 3: Restoration Westminster (Room 7): Charles II

Stop 4: The Kit-Cat Club (Room 9): Robert Walpole

Stop 5: The Arts in Georgian Westminster (Room 12): Robert Adam

The neo-classical architect

This a portrait of Robert Adam by George Wilson, an oil on canvas painted in 1774. He was renowned for his neo-classical designs and attention to interior detail, to such extent he revolutionised English domestic architecture. In Westminster he built the original Adelphi Buildings on the Strand and today, we can see Admiralty Arch (his first success and best surviving exterior) near Trafalgar square and 20 Portman Square. Outside central London we can visit Kenwood, Osterley and Syon houses.  Great follow on visits after The National Portrait Gallery for Americans.

The life and achievements of Robert Adam

Robert Adam was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland 1728 as one of four brothers (John, Robert, James and William). All were active in design and architecture – the most famous being John and Robert. The brothers were strongly influenced by the discoveries of Roman architecture at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Robert attended Edinburgh University, but he did not graduate – partly due to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion (…Bonnie Prince Charlie’s last effort to claim the throne).
After some years in his father’s architectural practice, Robert embarked on a ‘Grand Tour’ and came across classical architecture. He swiftly returned to London and soon became a fashionable architect producing neo-classical designs for the wealthy, building on the designs of Antonio Palladio. In fact Adam moved away from strict Palladian models, innovating and experimenting to produce highly original work, some say approaching genius.

Robert Adam designed everything himself. He moved beyond the Roman classical style, and borrowed heavily from Greek, Byzantine, and Italian Baroque influences. He died in 1792 at the age of 64 – and his work was widely imitated for years after his death.
The federal style!

The Adamesque style was strongly influential in the American colonies, Russia and elsewhere. It reached America in the years immediately after the Revolutionary War. Labelled ‘Federal’ it was embraced by Americans, who adapted it to suit their own tastes and circumstances. There are fine examples of this style on the east coast, for example the Massachusetts State House and the Central Pavilion in Boston.

Stop 6: Warren Hastings (Room 14)

Man of India

This is a painting of Warren Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It is an oil on canvas painted in 1768. This painting was acquired in lieu of tax by HMG in 1965. Joshua Reynolds (b1723) was an important English painter, specialising in portraits. He promoted a ‘Grand Style’ (i.e. visual metaphors suggesting noble qualities). He was founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 (catching up with Europe) and was knighted by George III in 1769. He competed with Thomas Gainsborough, another famous English portraitist at the time.

He is seen in this magnificent portrait by Reynolds with a pile of papers, a pot of ink with a quill and his personal seal in Persian – popular at the time.   The National Portrait Gallery for Americans.

The life and achievements of Warren Hastings

India was a hunting ground for valuable commodities, spices, cotton, precious stones and beverages! The English and the East India Company, started dominating India from 1600’s onwards. By around 1750 Robert Clive was in command of the company’s army (which was 250,000 strong in 1803), and he made significant advances against the French in India. It’s power continued to grow until the British Government began to take over control in the 1770’s. Warren Hastings, an English statesman became the first Governor of India from 1772 to 1785.

By this time, the East India Company had become a great military and naval power. Hastings co-operated where possible with native rulers but sometimes used brutal methods. His impeachment for corruption in 1788, trial in Westminster Hall and eventual acquittal in 1795 led to his appointment of a Privy Counsellor in 1814. After the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the East Indian Company was dissolved and India came under the direct protection of the British Empire – and Queen Victoria added Empress of India to her titles.

Don’t let it go the way of America

The British were concerned that India (vital for trade) would turn the same way as America. Well Indian Independence did happen, but not until 1945.
Britain became enormously wealthy as a result of the East Indian Company and its Empire. This encouraged a culture of hedonism and excess in wealthy circles – sadly epitomised by the last George – bring on the Prince of Wales (AKA ‘Prinny’).  Read on for more at the National Portrait Gallery for Americans.

Stop 7: The Regency and Reign of George IV (Room 17)

The Prince of Pleasure

This is a portrait of King George IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It is an oil on canvas painted in 1830 (from a work of 1815). At the time of this portrait George IV was a grossly overweight man of 53. However, the artist has transformed the King into a young virile, masculine leader of men, posing in the uniform of a Field Marshal, which he loved.

The life and personality of George IV

George was the eldest son of George III and Charlotte Mecklenburg, born in August 1762. He was born and educated at St. James’s Palace, London. He was an extremely talented student and learnt German, Italian and French in addition to English. However, in his late teens he fell out with his father who disliked his ‘fast’ lifestyle. He followed a life of hedonism and extravagance – heavy drinking, numerous mistresses and adventures not befitting a royal.

His father disallowed his secret first marriage on account he had not sought his permission – in this period nobles and royalty had to gain permission from the ruling monarch to marry. No longer necessary today, but there is still a tradition of debutant balls (introduced by George III).

King George III became deranged in 1788 (thought to be a blood disease called porphyria) and could not rule. Due to this crisis, Charles James Fox (a Whig) declared in Parliament that the Prince of Wales should rule as a regent in his father’s place.
In 1795, George IV was forced top marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick. It was not a happy marriage. The couple had one daughter, Charlotte, born in 1796. (She died in childbirth in 1817, making the way for Queen Victoria years later). Queen Caroline took Charlotte to Italy.

George associated closely with the Whigs, particularly Charles James Fox – but he broke his connection with them once he came to power in 1820.

George was hated by many. His extravagances came at a time of distress and suffering, following the Napoleonic Wars, and the social changes of the industrial revolution.

In 1820, when Caroline returned with Charlotte to claim the rights of Queen, George had her barred from his coronation. George tried to divorce Caroline, the so called ‘trial of Queen Caroline’. The move failed, in part due to insufficient evidence of adultery and because the people loved Caroline (as the ‘peoples’ queen’). (See George Hayter’s painting in the NPG – the ‘trial’ was one of the last great spectacles of the Regency).

However, George IV did have style and he commissioned John Nash in numerous building projects that we see today in Westminster; Regents Street, Regents Park, Buckingham Palace development, Carlton House Terrace and St James’s Park – the so called and ‘Regency’ style. He also donated his father’s immense book collection as the foundation of the British Museum Library.

He died in June 1830 of a haemorrhage in his stomach – and his brother William inherited the throne for 7 years, towards the end valiantly clinging to life until the majority age of Queen Victoria.

We move from a man who was born into privilege and destiny, yet no doubt feelings of over bearing duty and worthlessness, to a man who fought his way to wealth through innovation and a desire to be part of the new modern Britain.

Stop 8: Developments in Early C19 Westminster (Rooms 18 and 19); Sir Marc Brunel

The tunnelling innovator

This is a painting of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel by Samuel Drummond. A great inventor and engineer of the Regency period. It is an oil on canvas painted in 1835. In this painting, we can see some of his inventions and projects; a miner’s safety lamp and a model of a lighthouse. In the background is the worlds-first underwater tunnel; the Thames Tunnel in Rotherhithe.

The life and achievements of Marc Brunel.  This is a must-read for the National Portrait Gallery for Americans.

Stop 9: The Duke of Wellington (Room 20)

Stop 10: Prince Albert and the Great Exhibition (Room 21)

Here we see a sculpture of Victoria and Albert in Anglo-Saxon dress after a marble by William Theed the Younger made in 1867. It is a plaster cast, lent by HM the Queen and believed to be an initial preparatory model before the marble work was commissioned. Notice the embroidered pattern around the skirt of Albert’s tunic showing the initials ‘V’ and ‘A’. The marble version by Theed is in the Royal Mausoleum (Frogmore) Windsor.  The panting of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, is a replica by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.  It is an oil on canvas pained in 1867 (based on the original work of 1859, two years before Albert’s death).  This one is astonishing at the National Portrait Gallery for Americans – like looking into a crystal ball of the future of America.

The life and achievements of Albert

Prince Albert was born in in 1819 in Bavaria. He was the younger son of the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and inherited that family name. He was educated at Bonn University.

In 1840, he married his cousin Queen Victoria (Albert’s aunt was Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.). Initially, the public and parliament disliked the marriage and Albert was denied a suitable allowance. Soon, Albert’s role as advisor to his wife became apparent (after the death of the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, who acted as a ‘father figure’ to the young queen). Prince Albert encouraged the Queen to broaden her intellectual horizons. It was an uphill struggle for Albert to gain popularity, and it took until 1857 before her was recognised as the ‘prince consort’.

Albert had a keen interest in the arts, science, trade and industry. He masterminded the Great Exhibition of 1851 – a world exhibition in showcasing the very best of art and industry across the world. The Great Exhibition (in London’s Hyde Park) was such a roaring success that it left significant funds to purchase land, provide a permanent home to some of the exhibits left over and to gather a new collection of items – all celebrating science and arts. The government of the day was up for it too – the museum would kick start the economy and promote a social policy of ‘education, science and art for everyone’! Prince Albert and Henry Cole were prime movers in getting the museum going in 1852. Today, along Exhibition Road in London, the area is packed with ‘Prince Albert’ inspired museums – so much so, that in the late 1800’s the area was nicknamed ‘Albertropolis’. Today, the Victoria and Albert Museum (formally, the Museum of Manufactures, 1852, and then South Kensington Museum, 1857 and 1890, before finally becoming the V&A in 1909) is one of the world’s greatest collections of art and industry, covering 5000 years of history. There are 2.5 million items in the collection – and over 7 miles of display space! Notice the Lithograph of the Great Exhibition, British Nave by Joseph Nash, published in 1851.

The couple had nine children that married the royal houses of Europe – leading to Queen Victoria becoming the ‘grandmother of Europe’. Sadly, Albert died suddenly of typhoid on 14 December 1861. Victoria wore black until the end of her life. She had a number of monuments created in his honour, including the Royal Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens (1876) in Westminster.

America at the Great Exhibition

In contrast to the arts, silks and jewels of some exhibitors, the American exhibits lacked sparkle and excitement. They were a bit work-man-like. There was a Virginia grain reaper designed by Cyrus McCormick, a revolving charge pistol by Samuel Colt and India-rubber goods by Charles Goodyear.

However, by the end of the Exhibition, the Times was declaring that ‘Great Britain has received more useful ideas and ingenious inventions from the United States, than from all other sources’

It was the sheer utility of several of the American exhibits that was recognised; the grain reaper exceeded the speed, efficiency and endurance of all competitors. A lock designed by Day and Newell defeated all attempts to pick it, (unlike its British counterparts). And Colt revolvers and Robbins and Lawrence rifles were also found to be clearly superior to all comparable firearms.

So, whilst America’s contribution was light on volume, it had produced a display that contained a number of valuable contributions to technology in a variety of fields – it demonstrated that America (with its resources, ingenuity and population) would be a force to be reckoned with!

Stop 11: Barry and Pugin and the Palace of Westminster (Rooms 22 and 24)
Charles Barry

This is a painting of Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight. It is an oil on canvas painted in around 1851, the same year as the Great Exhibition we have just talked about.

In this portrait, Barry has a pair of compasses in his hand and is resting an elbow on his plans for the new Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament. Notice too, the gothic cupboard – indicating the overall style of the building. A style only agreed after heated debates in the Commons.

The life and achievements of Charles Barry

Charles Barry was born in London at the end of the 1700’s. He commenced work as apprentice, but at a young age, was able to undertake a grand tour of Europe and North Africa using an inheritance following his father’s death.

Returning to England he was commissioned by the Church Commissioners to design in both Gothic and Greek styles – and so he built churches in London and Manchester.
His skill won him further commissions that you can still see today; The Traveller’s Club (1830) and the Reform Club (1838) – the later was widely copied. Also, Cliveden (Buckinghamshire, 1859), and Harewood (Yorkshire). And in 1842, his foresight even created a fine location for the TV series Downtown Abbey – at Highclere Castle in Hampshire!  One of our favourites (opposite ‘Big Ben’) is the neo-classical Treasury Building in Whitehall, built in 1846.

In 1842, there was a catastrophic fire at the Old Palace of Westminster (POW). (The POW was given by Henry VIII to the state to accommodate Parliament – after he moved into Whitehall Place just up the road having been ‘given’ it by Thomas Wolsey.) The fire in 1842 destroyed everything except Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower and the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel (still used for MP’s marriages today).

Barry won the public competition and so sealed his place in the architectural history books. Barry partnered with Augustus Pugin (the interior design man to beat all others) and the new chambers opened in 1852.

Interestingly, the design is quite classical in nature but with a plethora of Gothic features and details, outside and in, by Pugin. The Victoria tower (see in the portrait) was the tallest in the world at the time, at 336 feet. We should not neglect to mention ‘Big Ben’ either – actually the name of the bell – the tower was renamed in 2014 as the Elizabeth Clock Tower to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II as the longest reigning monarch in British history. Two further things about the House of Commons chamber; it was destroyed in WW2 and sympathetically rebuilt after the war – and the Queen has never set foot in it.

Barry had three sons – all architects or engineers. John Wolfe-Barry designed Tower Bridge, Edward Barry put the finishing touches to the Palace of Westminster (after his father died in 1860) and redesigned the Covent Garden Opera House and Charles Barry Jr re-developed Burlington House (the Royal Academy of Art in London).

No republic please, we’re British – even on the National Portrait Gallery for Americans tour

One of the reasons that the Palace of Westminster was not built in the Italianate neo-classical style (like the rest of Whitehall) was, aside from being heathen architecture not suitable for a Christian country, that because government buildings had recently been built in this style throughout the USA. It was thought that if the centre of British democracy adopted USA style ‘Federal architecture’ it might give other parts of the empire ideas on revolution and republicanism.

And so to modern times and much needed social reform.

Stop 12: Women’s Rights in Early C20 Westminster (Room 30)

Christabel Pankhurst

This is a painting of Dame Christabel Pankhurst. It is an oil on canvas by Ethel Wright, painted in 1909. This portrait was first shown at the Women’s Exhibition in London 1909, organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She is seen wearing the green, white and purple sash of the WSPU.

And that concludes our tour of key figures in the National Portrait Gallery for Americans.  I hope you have enjoyed the personalities. We have travelled through more than 300 years of English and British history, taking in some of the most important royal figures as well as those who helped to shape the British Empire.

For refreshments, you can head upstairs until you reach the top. Here you will have a fabulous view over Trafalgar Square and down to Parliament. Start with cocktails at the bar, enjoy the view – and mix with the London art crowd! Alternatively, the shop, café and toilets are all downstairs.

(Feb 2018: Currently, there is a major exhibition of the work of the French post-impressionist artist Cezanne – the man who laid the way to many from Van Gogh to Toulouse-Lautrec.)


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