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March 16 2010

Returned to life

Storytellers invent life histories for unknown subjects in National Portrait Gallery vaults

For more than half a century they have lain in a storeroom, unidentified and unseen by the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery every year. But new life is being breathed into a collection of 16th and 17th century portraits of mystery figures thanks to a collaboration between the gallery and seven popular writers.

The authors, including the Booker prizewinner John Banville and Joanna Trollope, have examined pictures that the gallery could not hang in public because the subjects were anonymous. The writers have imagined the lives the sitters might have led and produced a short work of fiction around the images.

Banville takes a portrait of a handsome man on his deathbed and reinvents him as a much-admired officer, Launcelot Northbrook, who served with Cromwell's New Model Army. "The saying was that half the women of London went into mourning when, in 1643, he married," Banville writes.

Trollope imagines the subject of one of the paintings writing a diary entry for the day the painting was completed. "I am a little taken aback in the matter of my nose," writes Paxton Whitfield, a Cornish gentleman. "My nose has about it a shine and a hint of colour which would indicate a propensity to being fuddled. I am, in truth, seldom fuddled … I remonstrated with the painter."

Many pieces are melancholy. Tracy Chevalier, best known for her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring in which she weaves a story around the image of a young woman in a Vermeer masterpiece, repeats the trick with a rare 16th century sketch of a painfully pale woman. The painter, William, is "too honest", she has the figure say. "He did not hide how thin I look, the flesh melted from my cheeks, my brow so bony."

A second Chevalier story imagines a portrait of a handsome boy with flushed cheeks as the object of a male friend's desires. "Only George could call me Rosy … He managed to make the word tender."

The crime writer Minette Walters and the journalist and author Sarah Singleton also contributed pieces of writing.

There is some light relief in a story fantasy writer Terry Pratchett creates around a hopeless seafarer called Joshua Easement, who presents Queen Elizabeth with a "marvellous and intriguing animal" from the Americas. It turns out that Easement does not have a sense of smell and had given the queen a skunk. Tarnya Cooper, curator of 16th century collections at the National Portrait Gallery, said the writers had done something "incredible".

"They have looked into a portrait without knowing anything about it and judged from a gesture, from costume, from the look in someone's eyes what might be going on in their lives. I hope it will help people engage with portraiture in a new way."

Cooper said the 13 portraits were bought between 1858 and 1971. When the identity of the sitters was disproved or disputed, the pieces were removed from display or lent out.

Work continues on naming the sitters – Chevalier's "Rosy" has just been identified by students from Bristol University as Sir Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I's favourite courtier, the Earl of Leicester.

The actor, writer and director Julian Fellowes said he jumped at the chance to be involved in the exhibition, Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits, which opens today at the National Trust's Montacute House, near Yeovil in Somerset.

"The importance of portraits is that they remind us of the central truth that can get lost at times – that history is the reporting of the actions of real people," he said.

"There were real men and women making choices, calamitous or happy, throughout history."

Who are you? Re-imagined lives

The Life of Edmund Audley by Sarah Singleton

Discretion was the hallmark of this minor official's life, in both the professional and private realms. Something about the attitude of his hand suggests the keeping of a secret – of holding matters close to his heart.

Perhaps a clue lies in a recent discovery made during the renovation of the former Audley residence. A collection of elegant, intelligent but passionate poetry was found in a locked, wooden box underneath Elizabethan-era floorboards ... Did the respectable official harbour an intense, secret passion for a mistress in Flanders?

Was she considered unsuitable for marriage or did he meet her after making his matrimonial alliance with the Mayne family?

A Hand on My Shoulder by Tracy Chevalier

I am not sure why I agreed to let William draw me. I certainly did not want a painting of me, not now. "A drawing, then," he said. "That is all." He let me see the drawing today. Though he has done his best, William is too honest … I cannot seem to hide my thoughts – sadness and fear brim in my eyes like tears.

The hand of death has been heavy on my shoulder and left its mark. I still feel its weight, though it is now only a ghost – a ghost waiting to return one day.

From the Diary of Paxton Whitfield by Joanna Trollope

This day was my likeness completed. I am at last well satisfied. I had much argument with the painter, who would not have me stand with my left hand towards my breast, saying that such a gesture was reserved for artists alone when portraying themselves. But I held my ground in the matter. Indeed, I am known for holding my ground.

Blanche Vavasour, Lady Marchmont by Julian Fellowes

This portrait appears to have been commissioned to commemorate Blanche's sorrow. Dressed in widow's weeds, she wears a downcast look as well as a distinctive brooch, as witness to the tragic death of her husband, to whom she appears to have been defiantly loyal ... Blanche did not remarry, instead spending much of her time trying to rescue her husband's property which, as belonging to a traitor, had reverted to the Crown.

• The exhibition runs until October 2010 at Montacute House, near Yeovil, Somerset. A collection of the stories is available. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 03 2010

National Portrait Gallery reveals all in online archive

From cleaver-wielding suffragettes to a gun-toting delusional Edwardian, the National Portrait Gallery has played host to more than portraiture in its 150-year history

They are some of the forgotten stories from the last 150 years of the National Portrait Gallery: an Edwardian murder and suicide, a cleaver-wielding suffragette and a big rat problem.

The gallery announced today the posting online of an archive catalogue along with reports, letters and photographs which give a fascinating insight into some of the less well-known chapters in its history.

It comes after two years of cataloguing previously unseen material, a project that the gallery's archivist and records manager, Charlotte Brunskill, said they were about a third of the way through: "When I first started there was a 150-year backlog of stuff that hadn't been looked at."

One of the most dramatic stories in the gallery's history was a murder and suicide in the east wing in 1909. The newspapers were full of it, the Daily Express reporting on the well-dressed man, a 70-year-old from Hove "wearing a silk hat and a fur coat", who visited the gallery with his 58-year-old wife.

When they got to Room 27 the man pulled out a revolver and shot his wife before turning the gun on himself. Two young women on a day out fled in terror. It later turned out the man was "delusional with a persecution complex" believing he was being pursued by someone not identified.

An internal report on the incident includes the detail: "Three attendants remained after the gallery was closed to clear up in Room XXVII. Men were sent from HM Office of Works to remove by scraping such stains as remained in the floors after they had been washed over by the Gallery charwomen."

Many documents relate to an incident involving a suffragette in 1914. A woman who later gave her name as Anne Hunt, a "well-known militant" as it turned out, visited the gallery with a meat cleaver hidden in the folds of her dress. When she got to a Millais portrait of the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle – "I think they particularly didn't like him," said Brunskill – she smashed through the glass and ripped his face, shouting that it was "a protest against the re-arrest of Mrs Pankhurst."

A report said an attendant had seen the woman a few days earlier and taken her to be American "from the closeness with which she then examined the ­pictures". When she turned up again on the Friday he thought he must be wrong as "no American would have paid the 6d entrance fee twice over". She looked suspicious enough for him to follow and grapple with her when she attacked the Millais, possibly preventing further damage.

The gallery had no paintings during the second world war – they went secretly to Mentmore, a mansion in Buckinghamshire – but did have rats. They were everywhere, it seems, and their extermination was formalised in rat reports saying where they were killed and trapped, along with "killers' remarks". A typical entry might have read: "1 Trapped in library" - "drowned by Pitkin." Or another in the library that was "speared by Pittock with poker after it had escaped, with great excitement."

The gallery also said it had received a grant to catalogue the papers of the first director, Sir George Scharf, covering years when the gallery had no permanent home. It was originally in a private house in Great George Street, then South Kensington and briefly in Bethnal Green before moving in to its present home in 1896.

Some of the most interesting material are Scharf's pocket books packed full of drawings, including some from his visit to Blenheim palace and one of an infant Winston Churchill.

Brunskill said a lot of Scharf's diaries covered his obsessions with the weather and his health but he was also a committed campaigner against the "national disgrace" of the gallery not having a permanent home. Sadly he died shortly before the gallery moved to its home in St Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square.

The archive also touches on the 1960s and the groundbreaking Cecil Beaton exhibition of 1968 which the gallery clearly wanted as a happening, swinging event. It was more like a concept album and there was music and incense and it was all a bit too much for a Mr Steer from Barnes who wrote a letter of complaint.

The gallery's then new young director, Roy Strong, wrote back defending the show, but adding: "You may like to know that both the next two exhibitions will have no music or smell." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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January 06 2010

What, no iPhones?

Newness might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you look at this painting of two princes

Let's hear it for tradition. There is no tradition older than royal portraiture – it goes back to the colossal faces of Egyptian pharaohs carved in stone. In a world of infinite instability why not take pleasure that an art form as old as hieroglyphs can still be made new – for that is what this painting lightly, likeably, does.

Newness might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you look at a painting of two young men whose military uniforms seem to have been sewn a century ago, with their dark blue stiff collars reminiscent of first world war officers, or even of pictures of the last Tsar's family. Prince William wears the light blue sash and silver medal of the medieval Order of the Garter – he may as well have worn armour too, so absolutely are modern objects excluded from the scene. What, no iPhones?

The vista of the palace behind them could also have been painted 100 years ago. Above all the painting is full of quotations and evocations of great portraits of the past, including one of the finest in the National Portrait Gallery, James Tissot's impressionist-tinged 1870s picture of the cavalry officer Frederick Burnaby and Van Dyck's painting in the nearby National Gallery of Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart, two brothers who died in the civil war.

Here, I guess, is where the painting is so timely. Two youths pose dressed for war – and we are at war. One of them has served in Afghanistan. Beyond advertising the Windsors' most marketable wares, this is actually a contemporary history painting that alludes in a dignified way to the most important fact about Britain now, that people are dying in uniform. Just as Manet made the style of Velázquez an image of the new, so Nicky Philipps finds poses for our strange time in old paintings. You can even read intimations of Conservative government in that blue sash. There is anyway a keenness and a style to this portrait without the swagger.

Jonathan Jones is a Guardian art critic © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2009

Paralympian portrait wins photography prize

Paul Floyd Blake's portrait of 13-year-old swimmer Rosie Bancroft wins Taylor Wessing prize at National Portrait Gallery

An image of youthful confidence and determination that was taken using Victorian photographic technology has been named winner of one the UK's leading portraiture prizes.

Paul Floyd Blake's portrait of a 13-year-old swimmer who hopes to compete in the 2012 Paralympic games won the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize at a ceremony held at London's National Portrait Gallery.

The subject, Rosie Bancroft, had her foot removed when she was a baby. The portrait, part of the On Track for 2012 series, was taken in a swimming pool changing room in her home city of Oxford. Blake described her as a "fantastic subject, very natural and relaxed in front of the camera".

"Rosie was competing throughout the day and there was only a short window when I could take the picture," he said. "She had just swum a personal best in her event and I think that's why she has such a confident, self-assured look in the portrait."

Blake eschews digital technology: he uses a 5x4 Wista field camera, a modern version of the 19th-century plate cameras. "To get the same quality with a digital camera, you're looking at £20,000," said Blake. "It's got bellows and lots of different movements which I tend not to muck around with. I'm not [German photographer] Andreas Gursky."

An exhibition of the best entries goes on display at the National Portrait Gallery from Thursday until 14 February before the best 60 portraits – whittled down from 6,300 submissions – are shown at the Shipley art gallery, Gateshead, and then Walsall's New Art gallery.

Blake is photographing 12 young athletes with the potential to compete in the Olympics. "The series is probably less about sport than it is about young people growing up and the transition from childhood into adulthood," he said. "These teenagers exist in this ultra-professional world that can often be very isolating. It is about them growing up and how the experiences they have now shape them for the future."

West Yorkshire-based Blake, who wins £12,000, did not begin his photographic career until seven years ago when he was 40, but his work has now been exhibited in six solo exhibitions.

Sandy Nairne, the gallery's director, who chaired the judging panel, praised Blake's portrait as "a brilliant study of youthful determination". © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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