Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Cameron: Sadness (Ellen Terry)

(until 20 May 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shouldering up against the wall, the girl turns her face away from the light. We catch her in an unguarded moment, her blouse slipping off her shoulder and her hair mussed, her fingers tangling in her necklace. This is the celebrated actress Ellen Terry at the age of seventeen, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron during her brief, ill-suited marriage to the much older painter George Frederick Watts. It isn’t a portrait but an allegory, titled Sadness, and Cameron gives us the impression of trespassing on something deeply personal. It’s one of the most arresting images from a clutch of wonderful mid-Victorian photographs currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, tracing the early days of this art form through the works of four pioneers: Cameron herself; her teacher Oscar Rejlander; Lewis Carroll; and the ‘amateur’ artist Lady Clementine Hawarden.

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Laura Knight: Portraits (2013)

Knight: Ethel Bartlett

(National Portrait Gallery, London, July-October 2013)

If I was quick off the blocks with the new Elizabeth I and Her People exhibition, I was desperately slow at getting around to Laura Knight, which closed on Sunday. Having meant to go ever since it opened, the more so since the Grumpy Art Historian spoke highly of it when he went to see it back in July, I finally made it on Friday night, immediately after my Elizabeth visit.

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Elizabeth I & Her People (2013-14)

The Darnley Portrait of Elizabeth I

(National Portrait Gallery, London, until 5 January 2014)

The National Portrait Gallery’s autumn exhibition is the most recent in a long line of Tudor and Stuart shows in London over the last eighteen months. It’s much smaller than most of the others: a tasting menu compared to the banquet of the Royal Collection’s In Fine Style or the sprawling buffet of the V&A’s Treasures of the Royal Courts. Its purpose is to look at the social stratification of Elizabethan England and how luxury goods such as portraits, books and fine clothing were becoming increasingly available to the lower classes – merchants, clerics, writers and gentry – as well as to royalty and nobility.

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BP Portrait Award 2013

Kapka: Heterochrome

(National Portrait Gallery, London, until 15 September 2013)

Wilting slightly in the glorious heat, I popped into the cool halls of the National Portrait Gallery this lunchtime, to see this year’s BP Portrait Award exhibition. As ever it was an intriguing array of styles, techniques and concepts – some of which I liked, some of which I didn’t – and, as ever, I came away with a little collection of personal favourites.

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The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart (2012-13)

Oliver: Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales

(National Portrait Gallery, London, until 13 January 2013)

No expense was spared to educate Henry Stuart, the eldest son of James I and the future Henry IX of England. Thanks to the efforts of his tutors, friends and courtiers he showed every sign of growing up to be a perfect example of the Renaissance prince.  He was tutored in history and the classics, and his adoring father wrote a manual for him, the Basilikon Doron, which offered advice on good governance (the original manuscript is in this exhibition).

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BP Portrait Award 2012

Cumberland: Self Portrait

(National Portrait Gallery, London, until 23 September 2012)

Once again it’s time for the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition.  These shows are always popular, partly because they’re free and partly because it’s part of human nature to be fascinated by images of other people.  You find yourself trying to tease out the stories behind the portraits, to judge the character of the person represented, or the relationship between artist and sitter.

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Lucian Freud: Portraits (2012)

Freud Caroline Blackwood

(National Portrait Gallery, until 28 May)

I haven’t seen many exhibitions recently, so I was grateful when a more efficient friend invited me along to see the Lucian Freud: Portraits exhibition at the NPG.  I must find an opportunity next week to see Hockney at the Royal Academy before that closes, because we’re lucky to have retrospectives of Britain’s two great modern artists barely a ten minute walk from each other.  The two artists were friends, as well as contemporaries, so it should throw an extra interesting light on both.

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Glamour of the Gods (2011)

Marlon Brando

(National Portrait Gallery, London, 7 July – 23 October 2011)

There’s something about the golden age of Hollywood that still captures the attention today: an era when men were men, women were women and everything was screened by a veil of cigarette smoke. This wonderful exhibition brings together a selection of photographs of the biggest film stars from the 1920s to the 1950s.  Most are silvery black-and-white prints, luminous visions of another age, with the odd colour interloper feeling oddly out of place.

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BP Portrait Award 2011

Mikulka: Jakub

National Portrait Gallery, London (16 June – 18 September 2011)

The first thing to say about this year’s Portrait Award is that the standard is very high.  There are a few weaker pictures but generally the portraits are arresting and technically very impressive.  I confess that I’m always drawn to intense close-ups of faces, which I feel really bring out a personality, and there were a couple of particularly striking ones in the show.  One was Jakub by Jan Mikulka, which from a distance looks exactly like a photograph.  Only at close range can you distinguish the brushstrokes and see the image dissolve into careful arcs of paint.  It’s remarkable; and I was also touched by the sitter’s haunted, slightly sulky expression, which makes him look very young.

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