June 29, 2023

The National Portrait Gallery reopens to the public

The first visitors in three years will enter the Gallery this week to see its complete rehang, newly created areas, and more of the buildings historic architecture

The National Portrait Gallery reopens its doors today after a three-year, £35.5m redevelopment, which it calls the most extensive transformation of its building since 1896.

The transformational project comprises a complete redisplay of the Collection, a significant refurbishment of the building, the creation of new public spaces, a “more welcoming” visitor entrance and public forecourt, and a new learning centre.

The project has been backed by major grants from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, who provided a £10m gift to the Gallery, alongside The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Ross Foundation.


The Gallery said the “chronological hang will take visitors on a journey through history, from the Middle Ages to the present day, telling the story of the United Kingdom through portraits.”

Over 1,100 portraits are now on display, an increase of over a third from pre-closure. Gallery refurbishments have been carried out by interpretation designers Nissen Richards Studio in collaboration with the Gallery’s curatorial team.

Inside is the new Blavatnik Wing, encompassing nine refurbished rooms, which will exhibit portraits exploring society and culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with work from Sir John Everett Millais, John Singer Sargent, Laura Knight and Lucian Freud.

The building’s has increased public space by around a fifth, in part by converting office space into top-lit galleries in the newly named Weston Wing, which will house the Gallery’s contemporary collection, including The Mary Weston Gallery, which will display portraits by artists such as Andreas Gursky, David Hockney, Steve McQueen, Shirin Neshat, Sam Taylor-Johnson and Gillian Wearing.

On the ground floor, a new ‘History Makers’ display, in The National Lottery Heritage Fund Gallery, will focus on modern influential subjects, including Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray, grime artist Stormy, England footballer Lucy Bronze, actor Riz Ahmed and a tapestry by artist Michael Armitage, that depicts four refuse collectors at work during the UK’s first national lockdown in 2020.

Responding to audience feedback, The Gallery has made efforts to increase the diversity of the subjects in its displayed works. In 2021 it began a three-year project with the Chanel Culture Fund. The ‘Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture’ project was undertaken to increase the proportion of women artists and sitters on display.

The Gallery reports that 48% of the portraits in the 20th and 21st century galleries are of women (up from 35%), and 11% of all works on display are portraits of UK ethnic minority sitters (up from 3%).

The historic and contemporary collections have been expanded through the acquisition of works such as Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai), which was jointly acquired with Getty for £50m in March.

Building refurbishment

Visitors will enter past the three new doors of the Gallery, and a new commission by Tracy Emin, titled ‘The Doors (2023)’. The work features illustrations hand drawn by Emin in clay, which were then cast into the doors’ 45 bronze plates. Emin’s finger and thumbprints are visible in metal, as Emin used her hand to transfer works originally painted in acrylic on paper.

The refurbishment of the Grade I listed building has been led by Jamie Fobert Architects, alongside heritage architects Purcell.

The refurbishment has revealed a Victorian terrazzo floor and original windows, doors and roof lights to bring in natural light and connect the Gallery to the city that surrounds it. The scheme will enrich the visitor experience by improving facilities, bringing into use areas that were previously unused and creating new public spaces fit for 21st century audiences.

The new Ross Place entrance on the North Façade has created an accessible entrance, and a new outdoor forecourt for both the public and Gallery visitors.

The opening will also reveal The Mildred and Simon Palley Learning Centre, which has more than doubled the Gallery’s provision for learners, increasing its one studio to three.

“It has been wonderful to work so closely and in such harmony with Jamie Fobert and his team, including Purcell, on this, and I particularly want to congratulate Jamie on the thoughtful way he has moderated a conversation between each of the building’s different epochs in order to create something holistic, coherent and new,” said Dr Nicholas Cullinan, the Gallery’s Director.

“Alongside the architecture and as part of what was always intended as a complete transformation, the curators of the Gallery have undertaken a complete rehang of the Collection, from top to bottom, Tudors to now, and through many significant new acquisitions and commissions over the last few years, have transformed both the range and quality of the portraits we have on our walls.”

David Ross, Chair of the National Portrait Gallery Board of Trustees, added: “The project will make portraiture accessible to many who might not have previously thought it was for them. It has made the Gallery a genuine cultural hub within the heart of the West End.

“I want to thank the lottery players, taxpayers and the many generous donors who have made this possible as well as the wonderful staff of the Gallery. It has been a mammoth job and I hope all our visitors admire this historic transformation as much as we do.”

Museum + Heritage

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