Of all the wonderful art galleries in London, the one that I am fondest of is the National Portrait Gallery, which is tucked away to the side of the National Gallery on St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square. Whatever my current interests and concerns, I can always find something stimulating and enlightening there, from the astonishing portraits of the Tudors and their court by Hans Holbein to action shots of Mick Jagger and his contemporaries. Actually seeing the faces of people you have read about adds another dimension to your understanding of them; sometimes surprises you, and sometimes seems to reveal attributes that perhaps even the sitter and the artist aren’t aware of.
At the moment, the NPG has a very interesting exhibition of photographic portraits called Road to 2012, which is a project that is part of the cultural Olympiad. It’s available online:
The project, which is funded by the NPG and BT, not only features the athletes preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics but also the ‘project enablers’: the behind-the-scenes men and women who are getting the show on the road. There are also opportunities for people living and working in the Olympic boroughs themselves to demonstrate how the Olympic and Paralympic games experience has inspired and affected them by giving them an opportunity to upload their own photographs on Flickr.
The photographs themselves are fascinating. Some show athletes training amidst beautiful scenery. Some show them hard at work with their coaches in gyms and swimming pools. Others are of people in offices and on the Stratford site, standing in various attitudes. The images are in chronological order, so you can trace the development of the project through the characters depicted.
What comes across? Well, to me the portraits strongly suggest two particular elements: that of quiet determination certainly, but also a sense of the essential aloneness of each person, even when that person is in the presence of others. It is a sense I suppose of their feelings of individual responsibly, whether those lie in wrestling with the logistics of marketing or communication, or in improving strength and endurance in the water or on a bike or a horse.
I wonder how future generations will view these images and what messages they will receive from them? Portraits – unlike that of Dorian Gray – change over time, becoming invested with our knowledge of what has transpired since the sitter was first portrayed.
The British Library has a number of portraits, some of which are paintings that have come down to us from the old India Office Library. The great majority of them, however, appear in our magnificent collection of autobiographies and biographies, and often represent the only depictions of the people written about, whether they be grainy old photographs or engravings taken from paintings now lost. I have to admit that when I buy a biography my first action is to pore over the endlessly fascinating pictures – it’s a poor biography that doesn’t have them.
So all power to the National Portrait Gallery and Road to 2012!