The Ondaatje wing of the National Portrait Gallery was opened by the Queen last night, attracting comment that, with the public opening of the Tate Modern in London next Friday, the nation's art galleries are experiencing something of a renaissance.
In the entrance courtyard of the new £16m wing - whichmakes the gallery the largest of its kind in the world - light pours from three floors and the longest escalator in London moves up through the space to a darkened room housing some of the nation's finest Tudor portraits.
The new wing, made possible with £11.9m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £4m in private donations, including £2.75m from the Sri Lankan-born Christopher Ondaatje, was designed by the Jeremy Dixon.Edward Jones Partnership, which was also responsible for the Royal Opera House.
The wing creates 50 per cent more public and exhibition space. It includes an information technology gallery with 10 large touch screens, a 138-seat lecture theatre in the basement and a rooftop restaurant with views overTrafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament.
Visitors will proceed down the gallery through a chronologically arranged display of the nation's good, bad, ugly, powerful, revered and reviled.
Holbein's giant cartoon of Henry VIII is the first picture in the collection - which includes British notables from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to the writer Julie Burchill.
Lord Mountbatten, Margaret Thatcher, Ted Heath, Diana, Princess of Wales,Arthur Scargill, the Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones are included in the new "balcony gallery" which is devoted to the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. These figures have achieved "permanent" status, as opposed to the "contemporaries" on the ground floor. The pop group Wham! is "permanent" as are AJP Taylor, Iris Murdoch, Bob Geldof and Lenny Henry.
The portrait collection is now the largest of its kind in the world but, until now, has been less than ideally displayed. The National Portrait Gallery has always felt cramped. In the 1890s it was squeezed next to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and was awkwardly shaped, allowing no natural flow of visitors through the building.
Now, to critical acclaim, the gallery has been opened up - but not without some horsetrading by its director, Charles Saumarez Smith. He offered Neil MacGregor, the director of the National Gallery, a corner of the National Portrait Gallery in exchange for permission to fill in a little-used courtyard between the two buildings.
Mr Ondaatje, 67, is little- known in Britain but has donated millions of dollars to galleries around the world.
His activities include establishing the annual £10,000 Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture offered by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and being patron of Somerset County Cricket Club.
The benefactor is the elder brother of Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient.
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