Last December I had an afternoon unexpectedly free up, so I decided to spend it at my favourite big art gallery near Trafalgar Square. Not the grand one with the pillars, the National Gallery, but the one around the corner on Charing Cross Road, across the street from Pret, the National Portrait Gallery.
Both arrange their collections by chronology, so you go forward in time as you move through them. But while the National Gallery’s halls are just by century – “16th: Leonardo, Cranach, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein”, you can practically hear the curator yawning – the National Portrait Gallery, which has to fit into smaller rooms, has also grouped each era into themes.
“Tudor Court Life and Literature” sits Shakespeare and Donne next to each other, looking all mysterious and poetic, opposite Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall notoriety, everyone’s favourite accountant. “Royalty and Religion in the early 18th century” includes not just big portraits of the monarchs, King George I and II and Queen Caroline of Ansbach, but also of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, the Senegalese Muslim whose portrait is the earliest known of a freed slave in Britain, and Flora Macdonald, the Scottish Catholic Jacobite rebel who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety. That is, it puts the royals right next to examples of the kinds of people affected by expanding British imperialism.
In the 18th-century room “Britain becomes a world power”, a full-length portrait of King George III, swank and uncertain in gold and ermine, directly faces a smaller picture of George Washington, wearing simple, confident black. In the 19th century, “Art, Invention and Thought: Making the Modern World” includes both Ira Aldridge, the first internationally successful black Shakespearean actor, and John McAdam, who invented road paving (he’s the ‘mac’ in ‘tarmac’) – making the point that both of their innovations were part of our national progress.
(Please excuse wonky cameraphone angle, I am always super awkward about taking photographs in art places. Isn’t the space gorgeous, though? The way the arches lead through to that collection of busts. The last time I was here was a Late Shift, when the galleries stay open late on Thursday and Friday nights, and there was live music in the last room. And a pop-up bar in the entry hall. I went to the front desk immediately and bought a membership.)
The caption boxes, by the way, are masterful, and I know this is a weird thing to notice but they are just really extremely good. For example, I didn’t know that Wollstonecraft and Godwin chose not to marry for ideological reasons (and it wasn’t an excuse on either of their parts – before they got together, she’d been in committed unmarried relationships with two other men, and he’d published a book arguing the institution of marriage should be abolished), until she fell pregnant and they decided to marry so the child wouldn’t be disadvantaged by being illegitimate. And then Wollstonecraft died in childbirth. It’s quite sad to read that and look over to the other side of the room, where that daughter is frankly slumming it with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Well done for inventing science fiction with Frankenstein and all, but thinking about her parents’ sacrifices for her, both the ones they chose to make and the ones they didn’t, it’s really unfortunate that Mary Shelley spent so much of her life at terrible parties with dickbags. And all that sweep of love and loss is told to us in around thirty words per portrait. It’s extremely powerful storytelling.
It’s also just lovely and reassuring to see curation that’s not only powerful, but also a bit witty. There are, almost unavoidably, some rooms completely full of dead posh white dudes (the ‘Kit-cat club’ is really not as exciting as you hope), but most of the rooms are quite thoughtfully put together to show historical context and tension. Again, I liked sticking George III and George Washington across from each other in a room that’s purportedly about Britain’s expansion as a colonial power. They’ve also hung portraits of Margaret Thatcher, the anti-trade union Tory prime minister whose plan to close pits prompted a year-long miners’ strike in 1984-5, and Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers at the time, so it looks like they’re squaring off:
In the same hall, Prince Charles’s portrait is accompanied by a brief summary of his Navy career, then the sentence “He recently published a practical guide to organic gardening“, which I find hilarious. Most of all I especially loved the caption boxes in the William Morris exhibition that went up recently:
“[George Bernard] Shaw, enormously susceptible to women, formed a ‘Mystical Betrothal’ to Morris’s daughter May. Claiming to be devastated by her marriage, Shaw initiated a ménage à trois with May and her husband. This did not last.”
“Sandals became the favoured footwear for left-leaning, middle-class intellectuals, later derided by George Orwell along with fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sex maniacs, Quakers, native-cure quacks, pacifists and feminists.”
Reading those is one of the only times I can remember laughing out loud at an info box in a museum. Whoever wrote these, please be my friend.
I always get too distracted/excited by the historical rooms to give the moderns as much time, but the National Portrait Gallery always seems to have interesting modern exhibits on – recently, Grayson Perry (“known mainly for his ceramic vases and cross-dressing”, thanks Wikipedia) – and portraits that are interesting for the form as much as the subject matter, like a portrait of the artist in his own frozen blood.
National Portrait Gallery restaurant
On that day in December I went up to the third-floor restaurant for a drink and to have a look at the set lunch menu, hoping one of the window tables would be open. Unfortunately the tables were packed with white-collar workers wearing brightly coloured tissue-paper crowns and many one-quarter-full bottles of house wine. An office Christmas party! Always a danger when you leave the house in December. I sat at the bar, which still has a pretty excellent view, and took out a good book and felt all warm and jovial.
I’m quite annoyed that I didn’t write down more of the National Portrait Gallery bar’s wine list descriptions, because I remember them being great. The only one I note is “dense grippy tannins” for a Tempranillo, which is exactly what you want from that grape, but there were at least six others that sounded brilliant, because on top of having (an?) excellent caption writer(s?) the National Portrait Gallery also has got someone good to write their drinks list. This sort of thing may sound trivial, but it is genuinely really difficult to get across why a historical figure is important and what’s interesting about them in thirty words, or why a wine is nice and you might want to drink it in less than ten.
Anyway I ordered a macabeo chardonnay I did not write down, and started the set menu with this:
Mozzarella and roasted squash, spinach and olives. The mozzarella was neither the sad watery stuff you get on a lot of British pizzas, nor the absurdly light, creamy kind you get in actual Italy, but a perfectly nice medium weight soft cheese, with the olives sharp and salty, the squash roasted to full flavour, and a bit of pesto and olive oil drizzled on top to make the taste even bigger. The spinach was a bit bleh and droopy – I think it was just overcooked by a minute or two – but tasted mineraly and green which is what you want from spinach really.
Partridge, crispy potatoes, roast sprouts and some kind of herby mayo. Perfectly wintry. Like the spinach, the potatoes were mostly lovely but had been left about a minute too long, and were just a bit the wrong side of greasy, but not by much.
Pudding was an absolutely gorgeous panna cotta with stewed mandarins. The panna cotta was clean and milky, the mandarins luscious and dark and sweet, the sauce spiced and almost intoxicating. I had this with a light English dessert wine from Chapel Down that tasted like the library of Alexandria.
As the Christmas party cleared out, I looked out at that view of all the roofs around Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, which I especially like because you can see Big Ben. I watched my time happen, the clock moving slowly and evenly along the minutes, and felt very content. It feels unusual to be so aware of time passing in a good way – ‘watching the clock’ isn’t understood as an expression about being happy. But I was watching a clock, and all I was thinking about it was “Yes, I’m pleased with today.”