What Good Is A Portrait Gallery?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ondaatje Wing | National Portrait Gallery, London

Until A Week Ago, The Lobby Of The National Portrait Gallery's New Ondaatje Wing Sported An Unrendered Rectangle On One Wall: A Slash Of Naked Brick In The White Plaster Which Jeremy Dixon And Edward Jones, The Wing's Architects, Have Inserted Down A Lightwell In The Npg's Back Half. Was This An Admission Of The Building's Victorian Past? The Architects Looked Appalled. (The Rectangle Would Be Covered By A Plaque For Unveiling On Opening Day.) For All Its Vistas And Finishes, The Ondaatje Wing Is A Modernist Work, A Piece Of Strict Corbusian Orthodoxy. It Does Not Go In For Historicist Tricks Like Self-Portraiture.

Which Makes It Something Of A Statement As Far As The Npg Is Concerned. The £15.9m Extension Certainly Counts As Revolutionary In Terms Of The Way The Npg Will Work In The Future. Not Only Does The New Wing Increase The Gallery's Showing Space, It Also Provides The Physical Core To Its New Hang.

Dixon And Jones's Wall-Climbing Escalator Wafts You Glamorously Up To The Beginning Of British Portraiture, Or Thereabouts. The Npg's New Tudor Gallery Forms The Starting Point To A Chronological Tour Of Art History, Through Which Visitors Descend In An Inverted Helix: Via A Door From The Tudors Into The Stuarts, Between Mytens's Deeply Minor Portraits Of Charles I And Henrietta Maria, Right At Queen Anne Into The Hanoverians, Through The Victorians And New Elizabethans And Back Again, Via Another Blond Oak Door, Into Dixon And Jones's Balcony Gallery. This Houses Portraits Of George Best, Margaret Thatcher And Other Post-1960 Luminaries, And (Greatness And Goodness Being Fickle Things) Will Be Subject To Change - Like Madame Tussaud's - According To The Fortunes Of The People Whose Images Hang There.

As You Wander Through All Of This, You Might Like To Muse On The Way In Which The Npg Presents Us Not Simply With Portraits Of People, But With Ideas Of The Value Of Portraiture. When Piers Gough Was Asked To Design A Gallery To House Pictures From 1919 To 1960, He Went For A Jokey Post-Modern Look That Took In Free-Standing Glass Screens, Sharp Colours And An Annoyingly Coffered Ceiling Like The Inside Of A Dance Hall. Portraiture, Seen In This Context, Seems Faintly Embarrassing, A Mode Of Art That Went Out With Empire Day And Propeller Planes.

By Contrast, Dixon And Jones's Intervention Is Deadly Serious. The Tudor Gallery Looks Like The Boardroom Of One Of The More Chic Merchant Banks. Its Walls Are Covered In That Charcoal-Grey Worsted So Loved By Businessmen With Six-Figure Salaries, Against Which The Glorious Portrait Of Henry Wriothesley, Earl Of Southampton - Newly Arrived From Montacute In Somerset, Thanks To The Npg's Increased Size -- Looks Agonisingly Foppish. Charles Saumarez Smith, The Npg's Director, Notes That He Specifically Wanted To Avoid Historicist DÉCor: Oake Beames And Sackbuts Were Not On The Cards. Yet The Tudor Gallery Still Carries Suggestions Of Kingship Of A Sort, Or At Least - The Wing In Which It Stands Having Been Paid For By A Financier - Of The Power Of Money.

Which May Be Apt Enough, Given The National Portrait Gallery's Remit. One Fact That The New Wing Can Not Hide Is That The Npg's Pictures Tend To Be Of Great People Rather Than By Them. For Every Van Dyck In The Collection There Is A Thomas Hawker, For Every Bryan Organ A Suzi Malin: When It Comes To A Showdown Between Eminence And Good Art, Eminence Wins Hands Down. And There Are Deeper Problems. The Idea Of Displaying A Collection Of National Worthies Pre-Dates The Npg, Harking Back To A Neo-Classical Belief That Exposing The Public To Exempla Virtutis - Models Of Virtue - Is Good For It. This Belief Is So Patently Past Its Sell-By Date That Architects Can Only Respond To It By Playing It For Laughs (Gough) Or Ignoring It Altogether (Dixon And Jones): Hardly The Stuff Of Great Gallery-Building.

Which Raises Other Questions, Not Least Whether The National Portrait Gallery Should Exist At All. The Short Answer To That One Is, Yes. The Reason Why People Visit The Npg May Have More To Do With Hello! Than With Art Monthly, But They Do Visit It, And In Increasing Numbers. But Need The Gallery Continue To Reinforce An Image Of British Society (And History And Art History And Curatorship) So Extraordinarily Outdated That - For All Dixon And Jones's Squeaky Fresh Plaster - The Overwhelming Whiff In The Ondaatje Wing Is Still Of Mothballs?

Whatever The Particular Idiocies Of Its Hang, Tate Britain Has At Least Dared To Suggest That Showing Art In A Chronological Sequence Is Boring. There Are More Interesting Ways Of Looking At Portraits Than As Coincidental Illustrations To British History, And The National Portrait Gallery Should Set About Finding One.