More about National Portrait Gallery London

Sr. Contributor

A gruesome shooting, a Suffragette slasher, a rat plague of biblical proportions, and a swinging ‘60s party are just a few reasons the National Portrait Gallery London is not nearly as stuffy as it sounds!  

Yes, as the oldest portrait gallery in the world it has everything you’d expect; a who’s who of British royalty from the Tudors onward; the world’s most iconic image of William Shakespeare (though of disputed identification); but you can also find fun stuff like photos of David Bowie and Twiggy. The collection isn’t the only thing with a fun surprise around every corner. In 2010, the gallery released its 150-year-old archives to the public for the first time, with scandalous results! Here’s the juiciest gossip.

In 1909, an American businessman suffering paranoid delusions shot his wife in the head, and himself in the mouth in the middle of visiting hours, sending two women screaming from the room. He died instantly, but his unfortunate wife survived for several hours. Museum staff carried her body through the East Wing and downstairs, leaving a trail of blood on the floors. Thrill-seekers may search in vain for the fabled bloodstains. The murder-suicide supposedly happened in the Arctic Room (that’s cold!), but other sources allege Room 27, currently the science and technology room. Others still claim that the murder room was converted into offices, and the bloodstains carpeted over. That’s what I call sweeping it under the rug.

In another violent incident, a militant suffragette came into the gallery in 1914 with a meat cleaver and slashed a John Everett Millais portrait of Thomas Carlyle, one of the founders. A gallery attendant had noticed her a few days before the attack, dismissing her as an American tourist because she stood too close to the paintings. When she returned a second day, he surmised she couldn’t possible be an American because no American would ever come to a museum twice! This brilliant bit of detective work aroused his suspicions, and he intercepted her before she did too much damage. Elementary, and xenophobic bigotry, dear Watson!

During World War II, the collection was moved to the safety of Mentmore Towers, a gorgeous manor house and favorite movie location. When the portraits moved out, the rats moved in! The archives include meticulous “rat reports” complete with “killers’ remarks,” chronicling exactly where, how and by whom each rat was killed. Among the more colorful remarks are “drowned by Pitkin,” stomped by “Calvert’s boot,” and “speared by Pittick with poker after it had escaped, with great excitement.” What fun! Don’t tell PETA.

The sordid anecdotes don’t stop there. In 1968, the gallery held its famous Cecil Beaton exhibition. To celebrate this trendy glam photographer, they threw a wild, psychedelic party with music and incense. The avant garde festivities were evidently offensive enough that a patron complained. The hip young director assured Mr. Buzzkillington that future exhibitions would “have no music or smell.”

If murder, mayhem, and mod aren’t enough for you, Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner gave the gallery it’s largest ever donation of 5 million pounds. Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge (whose portrait hangs in the gallery), is another official patron.




The National Portrait Gallery collection is all about British history and its great characters.

There's some surprises, like Mary Jane Seacole, a West Indian woman who was voted the Greatest Black Brit.  And then there's all the expected faces, like the bulldog of WWII, Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin, the evolution guy. Also, it's a neat place if you’re into fashion, as all the historic portraits are fully clothed in the styles of their time. The downside to that is there's no nudes. For that go next door to check out the art in the National Gallery.

The location is impossible to beat, in the heart of London, just off the well pigeoned Trafalgar Square and surrounded by a veritable United Nations of decent cafes and restaurants. Plus, I don’t know of a better organized and visitor-friendly museum. For once, the little wall plaques alongside the pieces are chock-a-block with cool info about the portrayed. The website is friendly and the new Ondaatje Wing has a smart IT Gallery with a dozen-plus computers and comfy chairs to Google or to explore the collection without the tiresome walkabout.

Christopher Ondaatje, who gave close to £3 million to the wing, is a Canadian-English man born in Sri Lanka to a Dutch-Indian family. Yes, he is the older brother of the The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje. As one of Canada’s most aggressive and predatory businessmen he made a mint in publishing, and embarrassed Canada further by coming in 14th in the 1964 Winter Olympics bob-sledding race. He left Canada for the UK to rehabilitate and became a philanthropist and writer.

On the top floor of the Ondaatje Wing there is a posh but rowdy restaurant full of lunching Londoners and a striking view of the city. In the basement there is a more down-to-earth café.  The calm and cozy space is a long alley with no view but a full-length skylight. So it’s bright, except for when it rains outside (which can be often in London). It's clientele consists of surprisingly studious artsy types and a few tourists. Good sandwiches and coffee, and some great looking pastries. The museum store, meh, could do without. Small, no gadgets, and way too many art books. Who needs those when you have Sartle?

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Here is what Wikipedia says about National Portrait Gallery, London

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is an art gallery in London that houses a collection of portraits of historically important and famous British people. When it opened in 1856, it was arguably the first national public gallery in the world that was dedicated to portraits.

The gallery moved in 1896 to its current site at St Martin's Place, off Trafalgar Square, and adjoining the National Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery also has regional outposts at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire and Montacute House in Somerset. It is unconnected to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, with which its remit overlaps. The gallery is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about National Portrait Gallery, London

Comments (1)

Tamara Gibbs

The national portrait gallery London is an art museum that deserves all its five star ratings.