NPG

National Portrait Gallery

Above the entrance of the Gallery are the busts of the three men - all biographers and historians - chiefly responsible for the Gallery's existence. In the centre is Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope (1805-1875); his efforts resulted in the Gallery's foundation in 1856; he is flanked by two of his staunchest supporters, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Stanhope first introduced the idea to the House of Commons in 1846; he tried again in 1852 and after he took his seat in the House of Lords he tried for a third time in 1856. On 4 March he made a statement to the House of Lords pleading for the establishment of a National Portrait Gallery. Stanhope urged the immediate foundation of the Gallery in temporary accommodation, and with Queen Victoria's approval, three months after the debate, the House of Commons agreed to vote a sum of £2000 towards the establishment of a "British Historical Portrait Gallery". The NPG was formally established on 2 December 1856, and amongst its founder Trustees were Stanhope as Chairman, Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Ellesmere, a former Trustee of the National Gallery, who offered to the nation the so-called Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, which became the first picture to enter the Gallery's collection. On Ellesmere's death in 1857 Carlyle became a Trustee. The NPG was established with the criteria that the Gallery was to be about history, not about art, and about the status of the sitter, rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art. This criterion is still used by the Gallery today when deciding which works enter the NPG's collection. Originally, it was decided by the Trustees that "No portrait of any person still living, or deceased less that 10 years, shall be admitted by purchase, donation, or bequest, except only in the case of the reigning Sovereign, and of his or her Consort". This rule changed in 1969 in order to encourage a policy of admitting living sitters. On 4 March 1857, the Trustees appointed George Scharf, an illustrator, as the Gallery's first Secretary, and he remained in office for almost forty years. During the first thirteen years of its existence the Gallery was housed at 29 Great George Street, Westminster. The Gallery opened to the public in this elegant Georgian brick house for the first time on 15 January 1859. There was not enough room to display the government's gift of George Hayter's painting The Reformed House of Commons and to make best use of space the collection had to be arranged primarily by size. The space problem worsened as Scharf increased the Gallery's holdings during the years at Great George Street from 57 to 288 items. In 1868 Lord John Manners, the First Commissioner of Works, discussed with Scharf the possibility of removing the collections to accommodation in South Kensington, as a temporary measure, pending the enlargement of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, with the intention of placing the two collections under the same roof. After a degree of uncertainty, the Gallery left 29 Great George Street on 31 December 1869.
The Gallery's new home was in the Royal Horticultural Society's buildings on Exhibition Road in South Kensington. Following a fire on 12 June 1885 in the same buildings which was controlled before it reached the Gallery, and a damning subsequent report on the fire hazard faced, the Trustees were urged to consent to the removal of the collection as a loan to the Bethnal Green Museum, which then took place on 1 September 1885. Bethnal Green was an unpopular location for the Gallery, as it was not convenient for visitors from central London, and it was claimed that it was an unsafe environment for works of art. In the winter of 1888-9 melted snow got in and dripped on to five portraits and the Trustees asked for a report on the condition of the collection. Many of the pictures were found to be in a deplorable condition. This coincided with renewed calls to find a permanent home for the Gallery: a Memorial from the Trustees of the Gallery to the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury attracted the signatures of 350 influential public figures, including Robert Browning, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, Cardinal Manning, Sir John Millais and Lord Tennyson.
In 1889, philanthropist, William Henry Alexander (1832-1905), was reported to have offered to pay for a permanent building, provided the government gave a site within a mile and a half of St James's Street, and Lord Salisbury confirmed that the government would accept the offer and donor's condition. Quickly the government assigned a site which had previously been occupied by St Martin's Workhouse to the north-east of the National Gallery. The donor was able to insist on his choice of architect, Ewan Christian (1814-1895). Alexander initially promised £60,000 towards the cost of the new building and later added £20,000, whilst the government also contributed £16,000 in addition to contributing the site. Alexander later bequeathed a portrait of John Thurloe to the Gallery. Nneither Scharf or Christian lived to see the opening of the new building, Christian died of a chill in February 1895 and Scharf died in April 1895, shortly after retiring from the post of Director due to bad health. Lionel Cust (1859-1929) of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum became the Gallery's second director in 1895 and presided over the final stages of the building work and oversaw the preparation, move and arrangement of the exhibits. The doors were opened at 10am on 4 April 1896 without an official ceremony. By the time the new Gallery opened it was already too small to display the Gallery's growing collection; in the months that followed the opening the Gallery pressed for expansion on the site of St George's Barracks along Orange Street; the Trustees made further appeals in 1903 and 1906. Initially promising plans to divide up the site between the NPG and National Gallery were dashed by the First World War. By 1924 the collection had doubled in size since 1896; renewed appeals led to an agreement in principle to a government paid extension, but financial circumstances meant this had to be rescinded. However, in 1928 the art dealer and benefactor, Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) agreed to fund a £40,000 extension, which took the form of a wing along Orange Street. King George V and Queen Mary opened the new Duveen wing, designed by the Office of Works architects Sir Richard Allison and J.G. West, on 30 March 1933. The post-war NPG was, so far as it is possible to judge from the autobiography of Sir David Piper, a director of the NPG, a fairly quiet and scholarly establishment. However, a key member of staff who was to take the Gallery into a new era was appointed in 1959. A young Roy Strong joined as an Assistant Keeper and later succeeded David Piper as Director in 1967. During Strong's directorship, a succession of great and memorable events took place, including Cecil Beaton's photographs in 1968 which attracted 75,000 visitors; the opening of a new department of film and photography; the commissioning of Annigoni to paint the Queen in 1970, a portrait seen by nearly 250,000 people during the first two months and the decision in 1972, to make a substantial loan of 16th & 17th century portraits to Montacute, a National Trust house in Somerset. The profile of the Gallery and its attendance figures rose significantly. Roy Strong left to become Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1974 and was succeeded by John Hayes. Hayes embarked on a policy of commissioning portraits and established the BP Portrait Award (originally the Imperial Tobacco Award) which has become an extremely valuable part of the Gallery's public programme. During Hayes' Directorship (1974-1993) the Gallery explored many ways in which the existing buildings could be used more effectively, and these led to a number of changes to Christian's original building and the Duveen Wing. Most significantly the Gallery gave up a lease on part of Carlton House Terrace, housing archives, library and expanding photographic collection, so bringing a group of buildings across the road from the Duveen Wing on Orange Street into the possession of the Gallery. A decision was made to convert most of the ground floor of the Christian building, which had been previously filled with offices, into new galleries for the 20th century collection and to develop space in the Duveen Wing as a temporary exhibition gallery. These galleries increased display space by thirty percent and provided improved facilities for Education and a ramp for disabled visitors were opened by the Queen in November 1993. At the same time the buildings on the Orange Street site were converted into an administrative block, to house most of the Gallery offices, the conservation workshops, archive and library and photographic collection, with the archive and library and photographic collection moving back into central London. Three adjacent buildings on Orange Street were converted by Alex Murray and Neil Morgan of Grimley J.R. Eve: Ciro's Club, a 1960s office block and an 1840s town house on the corner of Charing Cross Road. Ciro's Club was designed in 1915 with a sprung-floored dance hall and had been leased to the Royal Dental Hospital from 1956 until 1985. In 1996 Piers Gough of CZWG Architects remodeled the nineteenth and twentieth century galleries on the First Floor. Charles Saumarez Smith was director of the NPG until 2002, having succeeded John Hayes in 1994 and was instrumental in advancing the NPG's Ondaatje Wing, designed by Dixon Jones Architects, which opened in May 2000. Sandy Nairne became director in November 2002. As well as the Collection which is permanently on view, the Gallery stages six major exhibitions and more than ten special displays a year.
© National Portrait Gallery, London 2009 (edited)