Letter: Second-rate art, but faces of history

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The Independent Online
Sir: It made me smile to read Iain Gale's article about the National Portrait Gallery ('Who are you looking at?', 2 August), which I had the honour of directing over 25 years ago. Like virtually all our national museums and galleries, it is a product of the Victorian age. Then, as he admits, it was cast into the role of being an inspiring Valhalla of the great and good in British history. Although that reading of the past as a cavalcade of heroes and heroines has long gone, there is still surely a place for presenting the story of these islands as expressed through the lives of its great people?

The National Portrait Gallery never was about art and only incidentally about portrait painting. It was - and is - about history and faces, often very badly rendered ones by second-rate artists. That is what sets it apart from, for instance, the Tate Gallery and also what makes a portrait like Branwell Bronte's naive icon of his sisters more compelling than the slickest and most seductive of Gainsboroughs.

Yours faithfully,


Much Birch, Herefordshire

5 August

(Photograph omitted)