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The portraits themselves are only the tip of the iceberg—dig a little deeper and you’ll find fascinating backstories behind the acclaimed works of Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery, London.
If you haven’t made time to see Shakespeare to Winehouse at the National Portrait Gallery, time is running out, with the exhibition due to finish on 17 July. This blockbuster, which has brought together some of the most famous faces in British history alongside less well-known sitters, celebrates the variety and complexity of the genre of portraiture.
Even if you have seen it, we have unearthed some of the quirky hidden stories behind the portraits which may entice you to return for one last opportunity to consider them in a different light.
Did you know…?
You could stand in front of the renowned architect Zaha Hadid’s 2008 animated digital portrait by Michael Craig-Martin forever and never see the same colour combination twice, thanks to its random sequencing Artificial Intelligence program.
Sir Winston Churchill may have been Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, but in Walter Sickert’s 1927 work he is shown in a completely different light—captured not as a statesman, but as a fellow artist by his (famous) painting teacher.
Dylan Thomas needed to be enticed by artist and good friend Augustus John to sit for his 1937–38 work. The enticement? Decent beer throughout the painting sessions. That’s what friends are for.
In Self, the section of the exhibition that explores a number of remarkable self-portraits, two founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts ‘sit’ across the room from one another: the Academy’s inaugural president Sir Joshua Reynolds (c. 1747-49), and Angelica Kauffmann (c. 1770-75), one of two women in the Academy’s first cohort.
Many thousands of words have been written about whether or not one of the exhibition’s keynote paintings is actually a portrait of William Shakespeare (1600-1610), and the identity of the sitter has been debated since the eighteenth century at least. The Victorians and Edwardians certainly didn’t help matters by failing to accept that one of England’s greatest national heroes might have worn an earring or had the occasional come-hither glint in his eyes.
One writer in 1864 stated that ‘One cannot readily imagine our essentially English Shakespeare to have been a dark, heavy man, with … a somewhat lubricious mouth, red-edged eyes, and wanton lips, with a coarse expression and his ears tricked out with earrings.’ But in fact, it is the earring that has helped conservators date the portrait to Shakespeare’s lifetime, with X-rays showing that the earring is one of the few areas of the painting where the original pigment remains. The earring was painted using a metal-based pigment known as lead tin yellow, which is more durable than the paints used in the remainder of the work.
And as for the supposedly rakish, swarthy complexion: this is because of the yellowing of the varnish – which makes the subject look much more tanned than he would have when it was painted.
The painting of Henry James by John Singer Sargent (1913) was attacked by a suffragette when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1914. ‘The militant suffragists added yesterday to their long list of outrages by a violent attack on Mr Sargent’s portrait of Mr Henry James at the Royal Academy’, fumed The Times on 5 May 1914; ‘The attack was made with a meat chopper, the assailant being an elderly woman of distinctly peaceable appearance.’
But visitors might be interested to know that this painting isn’t the only one in NPG London’s collection to have suffered the same fate: a portrait by John Everett Millais of Thomas Carlyle (one of NPG London’s ‘founding fathers’, no less) was attacked—also with a meat cleaver—by a suffragette named Anne Hunt while it was on display at NPG London in July 1914. Like the Henry James portrait, the damage inflicted by Mrs Hunt is still visible (three slashes to Carlyle’s face, apparently).
Some eagle-eyed gallery-goers may note that the portrait of Henry James is positioned in a ‘face off’ with Millais’ painting of Louise Jopling (1879), who was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage. Cheeky.
The painting of William Morris by George Frederic Watts is the only work in the exhibition which breaks the ‘ten year rule’ which is the policy that the National Portait Gallery London had until the 1960s of not acquiring a portrait unless the subject of it had been dead for at least 10 years. Morris was obviously one of the exceptions, as they acquired his portrait—by gift from Watts—only a year after his death in 1896.
What: The Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery, London
Where: National Portrait Gallery, Parkes
When: 12 March – 17 July 17, 2022
Web: Tickets and more information at portrait.gov.au/icons