Architectural Notes: The Queen at the National Portrait Gallery

The escalator in the Ondaatje Wing of the National Portrait Gallery in London is a monument to my childhood. It rises to the Tudor Gallery from a central hall which is Corbusian in its austere whiteness, and forces visitors to start at the top of the building, as at the Guggenheim in New York.

When the Portrait Gallery was built in the 19th century, it had an east wing, a piece of space that looked, on any plan, as if it should have belonged to the adjacent National Gallery. Indeed, the Portrait Gallery’s architect, Ewan Christian, designed the wing in the style of his neighbour, as if he imagined the National would one day own the space. Eventually it did. When the Ondaatje wing was developed, the National gained the east wing and, in return, allowed the Portrait to be enlarged so as to block light towards one of its buildings. I know all this because my father was a project architect in the firm behind it, Dixon Jones.

The opening of the wing, in May 2000, took place in the presence of the queen – and me, eight years old, there to present her with a bouquet. I remember little: my reverence, my gray dress. She wore rouge and smelled of talcum powder. I appeared, briefly, on the news – so briefly that when I brought the recording to school, it had to be played several times before my classmates spotted me. John Stanton Ward was commissioned to dedicate the occasion to the canvas; Elizabeth II is a small figure in the back. I am – rightly – nowhere to be found.

Above us was the new Portrait Restaurant, with its views of columns and domes. In the 2004 film by Patrick Marber Closer, the characters of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen meet there to sign their divorce papers. My dad has a still from the scene in his portfolio.

Dixon Jones worked on three culturally significant projects in the 1990s: the Ondaatje Wing, the Royal Opera House and the Annenberg Court at the National Gallery. It was a golden age for public architecture, but even the longest golden ages must come to an end.

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This article originally appeared in the September 14, 2022, issue of The New Statesman, Succession

Julia P. Cluff