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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

A pretty picture

Updated: Jul 25

The National Portrait Gallery reopened a month ago today. Reoriented and refreshed physically, by Jamie Fobert Architects and Purcell, whilst also displaying its collections differently, Inspiring People has drawn plaudits from most commentators. I hadn’t yet managed to experience the finished article although planning documents, artists’ impressions and glimpses through the chain-link fencing on Charing Cross Road all seemed positive. A visit this week, though, finally allowed me to judge the institution’s ambitious scheme for myself.

© Olivier Hess

As all parties must have hoped, the new approach from the north to Ewan Christian’s palazzo-like 1856 gallery is a contemporary urban intervention par excellence. A previously ignored triangle of railed, municipal grass that used to abut this elevation has been removed and the statue of Sir Henry Irving in front of it pulled some distance forward, rotated to look toward ‘theatreland’ and cleaned up. From the pavement behind gentle granite steps and a wide ramp now emerge easily, almost naturally, separated by a simple, sinuous stretch of stone seating. The two routes lead to a new bridge that carries visitors over the basement area to doorways created by cutting down three of Christian’s fine windows. Architectural intentions of this sequence aside the craftsmanship throughout is outstanding, with granite setts flawlessly matched to the material forming the base of the existing walls and laid in attractive fans, biscuity Portland stone plinths and original cast iron railings deftly folded to match this new perimeter geometry and hefty, gorgeous bronze doors installed in the new portals. Perhaps Westminster council might have been persuaded to close the rather redundant cut-through that is Irving Street further north and re-site the vacant kiosk next to it for an even more generous forecourt, but everything fits comfortably with everything else, passers-by are already resting on the benches and quite frankly the whole looks as though it has always been there.

Inside, ground floor rooms have been sacrificed to form a new entrance hall that is three times larger than the original on St Martin’s Lane; a little too large, it seemed to me, though struggles around the corner suggest such generosity is sensible when considering the future of a major venue. The original rear wall of the Christian building has also been broken through more extensively to ease connections to the Ondaatje wing, the gallery’s last major intervention and one whose importance as an enabler to this new project cannot be overstated. Dixon Jones’s work here in 2000 provided desperately-need space at the angle where the two Christian wings meet, a basement lecture theatre and the popular rooftop restaurant with its Mary Poppins views over London. The one-way escalator installed at that time also remains; strangely, though, a new wall now keeps pace with visitors as they rise through the space, just too high to see over and with harsh spotlights shining directly in your eyes as you try to.

The St Martin’s Lane entrance can still be used. Its threshold has been ramped and the old draught lobby and revolving doors – themselves the results of at least two earlier sets of tweaks – have been removed. Combined with cleaned and lightened stone walls, the complete ground floor sequence is now much brighter and more welcoming though sadly both ways in and out have already attracted Tensabarriers and temporary signs.

The gallery spaces proper now include areas previously used as offices, and most have been repainted, relined or had window shutters or other obscurants removed. Overall the chronological hang endures, with Katherine of Aragon at the top of the building and Cate Blanchett at the bottom, but this disguises a refreshing variation of style, medium and subject within individual rooms. Visitors will have their own favourite spots but for me a huddle of cultural figures from the 1920s is particularly effective, with Noel Streatfeild – author of Ballet Shoes – painted as the quintessential flapper alongside grandmotherly garden designer Gertrude Jekyl and a photograph of Agatha Christie holding her young daughter. Busts are placed carefully amongst the paintings, sometimes grouped, sometimes alone. It works well, adding incident and depth. It can also be amusing, as when one reads that one of four sculptures of successive generations of British kings that mark a cruciform gallery began life as Edward VIII before having its head remodelled to that of George VI. One small point – the metal clasps holding busts to podiums look rather crude.

The houses of British monarchs, from Tudor to Stuart, Stuart to Hanovarian, are usefully explained in text panels alongside the paintings. You can also make your own connections, so that a room of portrait miniatures from the 1600s can be compared to the similar fad for hand-held daguerreotype photographs two centuries later. The key move toward wider representation is front and centre across these displays, although from time to time the curators appear to have been trying so hard that other points are missed – the caption for sitter Fanny Burney is explicit about her life and writing but fails to explain that the artist, baldly recorded as one Edward Francisco Burney, not only shares her surname but was in fact her cousin. Perhaps if he had been female…

After taking your fill of art, the new café is the obvious place to rest. Occupying the entire ground floor of the narrow east (now Weston) wing, previously the shop, this is a richly finished space whose nicest part is the elegant bow window onto St Martin’s Lane. Warm timber window cases, eau de nil walls and mosaic floors all contribute, though the clunky metal steps and accompanying ramp that have been laid over Christian’s few stone steps to this area disappoint.

Unfortunately the equivalent space on the floor above, which has been returned to public use, is disappointing. Its windows have been covered with blinds, the light levels are extremely low and the whole area is in any event hidden behind what appears to be a solid wall that confronts the visitor arriving by lift or stairs from the café. Indeed vertical circulation everywhere remains problematic. The Weston wing occupies three levels but not, apparently, the ground floor, whilst that Ondaatje wing escalator still does not serve the first or second. Of three sets of lifts none calls at every storey and the two we used failed to announce their position, outside or inside the cars. Even the NPG seems confused, placing the Blavatnik wing on different floors in a press release last year and in reality today. All, no doubt, part of the “teething troubles” one attendant mentioned, but if it is too late to alter things materially I wouldn’t be surprised to see changes to the floor descriptions in signage and on the visitor map in due course.

The double-depth basement now has a bar-cum-nightclub (which I briefly saw) and a new learning centre with hard-landscaped garden that extends beneath the new entrance bridge (which I missed), completing a comprehensive set of changes at the National Portrait Gallery well ahead of the National Gallery’s own, far more controversial, efforts. Both have their roots in the collections of the British Museum, but as a rather smaller body the NPG can be more nimble. Here, as I predicted, this has paid dividends.

Photos by Chris Rogers except where shown

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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