ART / Saving faces at the NPG: For years, the National Portrait Gallery has been stuffed to the gills. Dalya Alberge celebrates an extra 921 square metres . . .

When the National Portrait Gallery's new wing opens on Friday - pounds 12m-worth of new space devoted to the second half of the 20th century - it will take a while to find John Major. You will find him in the far corner of a large gallery once you've walked past Churchill, Kinnock, Robert Maxwell and Baroness Thatcher. And when you reach Major, you'll find him dwarfed by the neighbouring portrait of Lord Whitelaw.

For those in the arts world who last month criticised the Prime Minister's approval of an outsider to succeed John Hayes as director of the NPG, this must imply a snub. None is intended, according to one NPG employee, who points out that the Royal Family is in the same room.

The new marble-clad galleries - some 921 square metres at the rear of the building - have replaced administrative offices which have moved to new premises over the road. The additional space gives the NPG a third more hanging space, urgently needed both for temporary displays and the permanent collection (some 9,000 works), which have been bunched up for years. Some of the exhibits were on turntables that rotated every minute: if you wanted to linger over a work, you had to wait for the carousel to come round again.

Giving more space to the 20th century was particularly important. As Dr Hayes points out, it is the gallery's most popular period with visitors - and one that attracts younger people. 'They can relate more to the history of their own time,' says Hayes. 'They come to see the characters they've seen in newspapers and on television.' And as photographic shows have also drawn some of the highest attendance figures, new displays will mix photographic images with painted, sculpted and drawn ones.

For the first time, too, there is permanent space for works which reflect that the NPG's finger is on the pulse of contemporary art.

There will, for example, be the memorable video portrait by Marty St James and Anne Wilson of Duncan Goodhew, the Olympic gold- medal swimmer: in it, fragmented images of him swim across 11 television screens to a soundtrack of splashing water. And the space opens with the first ever international survey of contemporary portraiture, including works by Lucian Freud and Anthony Wilson.

It's well worth a visit. After all, where else could you find Lisa Stansfield, the pop star, rubbing shoulders with Lord Hume?

(Photograph omitted)

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