IN a significant coup for our own National Portrait Gallery, more than 80 treasures from London’s National Portrait Gallery are about to go on show in Canberra.
It’s our good luck that the gallery in St Martin’s Place is closed until 2023 while building works take place.
But it’s not the first time our gallery has borrowed from the “Mothership”, as I found when I caught up with exhibition curator Joanna Gilmour.
“There are very few National Portrait Galleries around the world and London is the mothership,” she says.
“It was first opened in the 1850s and we share a lot of its DNA… our friendship goes back to the early days of the NPG in Canberra when Gordon and Marilyn Darling were working on the connections.”
But lest readers confuse this show with the previously-planned “Love Stories”, also from the London gallery but thwarted by covid, Gilmour is quick to stress: “This is a very different exhibition than the one we planned, but couldn’t go ahead with.
“A slightly different opportunity arose and we grabbed it with both hands… it’s a great opportunity for us.”
For a few years in our early days, from the ’90s to 2003, our gallery got a lot of shows from London, so we are rebooting the relationship.”
“What we will be seeing are really the icons of the National Portrait Gallery London’s collection, the sort of thing that a visitor to London would expect to see – I know when I go to London, the first thing I do is to go and seek out that 1834 portrait of the Brontë sisters [Anne Brontë, Emily Brontë and Charlotte Brontë] – I love them and I love that work,” says Gilmour.
“Normally all these pictures, especially the Brontës and Shakespeare, would be permanent fixtures, a part of intrinsic English and British history, and these are the sort of faces you’d expect to see.
“The largest work that we are getting is of a 17th-century portrait of the royalist, Lord Capel and his family, a stunning work of 2.4 x 1.4 metres in size.
“It took about 10 hours to get it out of its crates – we have a lot of things like that which don’t travel easily.
“It’s all been a real joy. The curators in London have done it in a really fantastic, challenging way, not chronological, not the way you would normally see it.
“They’ve created a kind of trans-historical look across the centuries by putting portraits side by side, raising essential questions of portraiture.”
The exhibition is focused on six themes of Fame, Loss, Love, Identity, Innovation, Self and Power, showing how portraits can share the same language.
A self-portrait by famous portraitist Sir Anthony van Dyck, for instance, is set alongside a portrait of radical artist Tracey Emin.
There are works in all different media and with different levels of energy, Gilmour says.
One of the most powerful ones is a huge life-size of designer Vivienne Westwood, put alongside a portrait of the Queen.
“The way these two very different women convey the same sense of self-confident power by virtue of the intensity of the gaze in both cases,” she says.
“Then there’s that portrait of Shakespeare, the first to enter NPG London’s collection on its founding in 1856 and next to him, the pop singer Ed Sheeran… it’s weird, but somehow it works to have them side by side.
“We didn’t get to choose the works, but we’ve had a little bit of leeway with our in-house designer, Aaron de Smet, able to choose the layout and the colour scheme.
“They gave us the six themes and the paintings, then we wrote the introductory text panels to each section while London supplied the labels, which made it easy for us, but it still left us a lot of creativity and a lot of joy.”
There’s a smattering of famous people – think the Beatles, David Bowie, Kate Moss, Mick Jagger and Princess Diana – but Gilmour is adamant that it’s not what the show is about.
And her own favourite?
Not as hard as you’d think, as she believes within the portrait of Afghan heroine Malala Yousafzai, with poetry inscribed across her face by artist Shirin Neshat, we can see “wisdom and integrity. It really comes out in this inspiring work, especially considering what’s been going on in Afghanistan.”
“Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery London”, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, March 12-July 17, book at portrait.gov.au
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