The National Portrait Gallery’s Shakespeare to Winehouse exhibition ‘an absolutely fantastic opportunity’ to see some of the best British art

If you’ve ever wanted to look into Ed Sheeran’s eyes, see what the Bronte sisters looked like according to their brother, or be in the same room as Malala Yousafzai, now is your chance.

An exhibition featuring more than 80 portraits usually displayed at London’s National Portrait Gallery opens today in Canberra, showcasing faces that have ‘shaped British history, identity and culture’.

“There are very old works, very historic works, going back to Shakespeare’s time, right through to the 21st century,” National Portrait Gallery director Karen Quinlan said.

“These are the icons of the collection.”

This portrait of William Shakespeare by John Taylor was the first acquisition of the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1856.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

One of the most important works on display in the exhibition is John Taylor’s portrait of William Shakespeare, painted in the 1600s and believed to be the only portrait the writer ever posed for.

“You also have people like Charles Dickens, and an absolutely wonderful painting of the Brontë sisters… which was painted by their 17-year-old brother Branwell around 1834,” said Joanna Gilmore, curator of the collection and research. at the National Portrait. Gallery, says.

But it’s not just the big names in literature that are presented in the exhibition.

A man with red hair and a beard in a painted portrait
Singer Ed Sheeran in a portrait of Colin Davidson.(National Portrait Gallery)

“There are wonderful scientists represented on the show, people who changed the way the world thinks – Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet,” Ms Gilmore said.

“You also have all kinds of popular culture icons. Everyone, from people like Nell Gwyn – the outrageous actress of the late 17th century – to people like Mick Jagger, the Beatles of course, Ed Sheeran, David Bowie – icons of British popular culture.”

But Ms Gilmore said the exhibit was as much about the iconic people featured in the portraits as it was about the creators behind them.

“The subjects of the artworks are just one aspect of what makes them so fascinating,” she said.

“The other wonderful thing about Shakespeare at Winehouse is the breadth of performers and the caliber of performers that are represented in the show.

“You have some of the iconic names in British art – people like Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey – and then you also have all these wonderful historical practitioners who are considered to be the greatest practitioners of portraiture in their respective ages.

A black and white portrait of a woman with dark hair and makeup eyes
A portrait of the late Amy Winehouse by Marlene Dumas, from the National Portrait Gallery in London, is part of the exhibition.(National Portrait Gallery)

From London to Canberra and back

The works on display in the Canberra Portrait Gallery all come from the National Portrait Gallery in London, which is closed for refurbishment until 2023.

“They are incredibly valuable, I mean some of them are 500 years old, and for them, traveling the world is not something we do lightly,” Ms Gilmore said.

The National Portrait Gallery seen at night
The Shakespeare to Winehouse exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery on March 12.(Provided: National Portrait Gallery)

Indeed, Britain’s loss is Australia’s gain.

“You don’t have to go to London this time, you can come to Canberra and see them right here on the walls,” Ms Quinlan said.

Ms Gilmore said the breadth of the collection was what made the exhibition so unique.

A black and white portrait of a woman with a headscarf draped over her head, looking calmly at the viewer.
This portrait of Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in London.(National Portrait Gallery)

“It’s an exhibition that encompasses several hundred years of British history and world history, but also an exhibition that also encompasses NPG London’s own history as an institution,” Ms Gilmore said.

“It…encompasses the entire collection of NPG London, beginning with late 15th and early 16th century panel paintings, portraits of people like Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, and on to the last two or three years. [with] portraits of people such as Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and women’s rights activist.

“There is a beautiful portrait of her created in 2018 on commission from the National Portrait Gallery [on display].”

Organized by theme, the exhibit features a portrait of Charles Darwin alongside a portrait of Ed Sheeran, in a fame section.

Other sections of the exhibit include love, loss, and power.

“This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and not to be missed.”

Julia P. Cluff