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London's National Portrait Gallery reopens after 3-year renovation project

A woman stands in front of the National Portrait Gallery Collection
A woman stands in front of the National Portrait Gallery Collection Copyright Jim Stephenson
Copyright Jim Stephenson
By Jonny Walfisz
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London’s National Portrait Gallery reopens today to the public, after the Princess of Wales officially was invited to unveil its latest commission by Tracey Emin.

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The National Portrait Gallery is the UK’s premiere exhibition space for portraits of important figures in Britain’s history and culture. First opened in 1856, the gallery has been in St Martin’s Place, slap bang in the middle of central London since 1896. In June 2020, the gallery shut its doors for three years.

The closure was to give the gallery time for essential building works, but also to create a brand new project. ‘Inspiring People’ is the redevelopment plan that has seen the National Portrait Gallery comprehensively transform the way it presents its collection of portraits from the Tudors to the present.

Now, the renovations are finished and today the gallery is ready to welcome people back inside. On Tuesday, Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, officially reopened the gallery.

David Parry
Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales with Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, National Portrait Gallery directorDavid Parry

Kate’s presence at the opening was no surprise as she’s a royal patron of the gallery. Although there has been some recent controversy around Kate’s influence on the gallery’s selection. When it was revealed that a portrait of her husband Prince William and his brother Prince Harry from 2010 wouldn’t be on show, questions were raised as to whether this was after a request from the Princess.

“The painting might be regarded as a painful reminder of the rift at the heart of the royal family,” The Times’s royal correspondent, Valentine Low wrote. “One that has particular resonance for the gallery’s patron, the Princess of Wales.”

The gallery itself debunked this suggestion, noting that the portrait hadn’t been on show since 2018, two years before the three-year closure.

Kate was greeted by the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, before meeting key artists displaying new exhibitions for the reopening, Tracey Emin and Sir Paul McCartney.

David Parry
Kate Middleton with Sir Paul McCartney and Nancy ShevellDavid Parry
David Parry
Weston Wing in the National Portrait GalleryDavid Parry

Emin is one of the most recognisable British artists of recent years. Her work in autobiographical painting and sculpture has captured attention since her breakthrough work “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995” in 1997. The Turner Prize-nominated artist of 1998 work “My Bed”, the infamous installation of Emin’s unmade bed, isn’t known for her portrait work.

The commission by the National Portrait Gallery to put new work by Emin front and centre for the reopening is a sign of the gallery’s commitment to a new direction. Emin has created an exhibition of 45 panels across three new doors for the gallery.

“The Doors (2023)” stands opposite the Portland stone busts, which are carved into the gallery and depict 18 male biographical writers, historians and artists from history. In Emin’s work, she has highlighted women of all walks of life.

“Women in history are greatly underrepresented. I didn’t want to depict specific or identifiable figures. I felt like the doors of the National Portrait Gallery should represent every woman, every age and every culture throughout time,” Emin said.

Harry Weller
Tracey Emin in her studioHarry Weller

“I used my self as a mental template, but the end result is many different women, some that exist in my mind and some that perhaps exist in reality here and now, as well as from the past. And with all terms of art, it’s up to the viewer to discern what they feel and what they see or who they see for that matter. I want people to stand in-front of the doors and say, ‘she looks like my mother, she looks like my best friend, my daughter’. People might also relate and see an element of pain or heartbreak in the images,” Emin continued.

Olivier Hess/Olivier Hess Ltd
The Doors (2023) by Tracey EminOlivier Hess/Olivier Hess Ltd
Olivier Hess/Olivier Hess Ltd
One of the 45 panels of The Doors (2023) by Tracey EminOlivier Hess/Olivier Hess Ltd

Alongside Emin’s new works, there are also 50 new acquisitions by the gallery, including Joshua Reynolds’ “Portrait of Mai (Omai)”, considered one of the finest portraits by one of Britain’s greatest artists, it was acquired by the Gallery and Getty this year.

British music icon Sir Paul McCartney is also debuting an exhibition for the reopening. “Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm” is a new exhibition that opens alongside the publication of McCartney’s book of the same name, covering photos from the early days of the Beatles’ meteoric rise to stardom.

“Looking at these photos now, decades after they were taken, I find there’s a sort of innocence about them. Everything was new to us at this point. But I like to think I wouldn’t take them any differently today. They now bring back so many stories, a flood of special memories, which is one of the many reasons I love them all, and know that they will always fire my imagination,” McCartney said of the collection.

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