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A deeper connection

National Portrait Gallery, London

The portraits in our museums appear together but separate. We see them as distinct, contained in their frames, loners in a crowded room. This is partly the point of the art form: portraits single people out, present them as unique and deserving of the splendid isolation a solo image gives. But it is also in the nature of the institutions themselves.

For museums split people up. Married couples are divorced: the wife's portrait hangs in Paris, the husband's in Berlin. Mothers and fathers are separated from their children. Lovers in life are parted in the gallery, along with close friends and families, while enemies are forced into false co-existence only inches apart on the wall.

Perhaps this is inevitable. The contents of any museum depend to a substantial extent upon the whims of the donors, upon collectors who chose to offer the portrait of the man but not the woman, to keep the duke but not the duchess, or could not afford to buy both in the first place. Society, in museums, is necessarily fragmented, but one can't help wishing it were not this way.

Take Quinten Massys's notorious The Ugly Duchess, with her outsize jaw and porcine nose, too deluded to realise how monstrous she looks in a low-cut dress; for centuries, the portrait has been interpreted as a vicious satire on vanity. But when reunited with her other half, in a recent National Gallery show, the rose the duchess holds is seen to be an offering for her husband, who gently reaches out to take it, full of affection. They are a most loving couple.

This is how they were depicted, how they were meant to be seen. It was an act of humanity to bring them, albeit temporarily, back together. And now two more curators have decided to rearrange the portraits in order to draw people (and not just pictures) together in Only Connect, a show of paintings, drawings, etchings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.

All 40 subjects are connected one way or another in a web that spans three centuries. The ostensible link is music, reaching back to Mozart and forward to Michael Tippett. You can probably guess who some of the guests may be given the gallery's nation-conscious remit: Delius, born in Bradford; Holst, born in Cheltenham; obviously Elgar and Britten.

But the party grows with the addition of conductors, spouses, lovers and cuckolds. And any show that includes James Gillray's skit on the ménage à trois of Sir William Hamilton, his wife, Emma, and her lover, Nelson, as an elderly connoisseur inspecting two dusty busts through the wrong end of a telescope in an antique shop – is off to a sprightly, unconventional start.

What is Nelson doing here? He admired Haydn, invited him to lunch, gave him a watch. But there is an alternative route. The musicologist Charles Burney (father of the novelist Fanny, portrayed by the painter Edward Burney) travels to meet Mozart in Bologna, where he later dines with Emma Hamilton, which takes us to Richard Cosway's beautiful sketch of Lady Hamilton pregnant with Nelson's child.

From here, you can move quite easily to Mendelssohn being shown round the Thames Tunnel by Brunel; who receives treatment from the oral surgeon Samuel Cartwright, inventor of the appointment system; who once gave a dinner in honour of Paganini; who once played a concert with Mendelssohn, arranging the guitar part for the composer to perform on piano.

The connections range from close to breezily haphazard. A surprising nexus is the improbably named Jelly d'Arányi, violinist daughter of the Budapest chief of police and dedicatee of works by Holst, Bartok and Ravel, who seems to have known practically everyone here after 1900. She is depicted sawing away on a badly foreshortened instrument, which only goes to show how hard it is to convey music in art.

For no matter how compelling their lives, or how curious their characters, these people must also make strong portraits. The Arányi is unusually feeble, although there are other weak works, notably of Paganini whose wildness goes entirely unnoticed by British artists such as Landseer.

But this show encourages one to look much more closely at the familiar as well as the overlooked. I've never paid enough attention to Martin Rose's synaesthetic portrait of Tippett in which the paint hovers, gathers and flies with the movement and character of music. Or Clara Klinghoffer's marvellous image of the pianist Harriet Cohen, concentrated, alive to some inner high note, eyes grown sightless with listening.

Tippett dreaming, Delius with his eyes closed in a crowd, Carl Friedrich Abel beaming out of Gainsborough's immense close-up – this is an opportunity to see portraits out of their usual period-based context. It is a fine shake-up. The shock of the new is more powerful when you can see Wyndham Lewis's acute vorticist portrait of Rebecca West, the two sides of her face – wistful, painfully intelligent – as mismatched as her fortunes in life, alongside GF Watts's oleaginous Victorian homage to Lord Leighton.

What emerges from this show is a social cross-section, a cultural milieu. And while the connections are very literally drawn as heavy lines on the wall, the display greatly enriches one's sense of the sitters, the society and the art. It is a good way of showing images, and people, as a group portrait united by love and intellectual affinity. It is also faithful to the truth that nobody exists in isolation. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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