National Portrait Gallery to face new direction with revamp

Redeveloped entrance will point towards Soho, despite wishes of a Victorian donor

The National Portrait Gallery is to get a new main entrance more than a century after a rich donor insisted it should not point north towards the filth of Soho and Covent Garden.

The entrance is part of a £35.5m redevelopment that is intended to make the gallery more welcoming and less crowded, and to better display contemporary crowd-pleasers such as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video of David Beckham sleeping.

A crowdfunding appeal to help raise money for the project, the gallery’s biggest redevelopment since its current home opened in 1896, was announced by its director, Nicholas Cullinan, on Tuesday.

One of the biggest changes will be the new main entrance, created by converting three windows in the northern facade of the building into doors.

A learning centre area is also part of the proposals
A learning centre area is also part of the proposals. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

The project’s architect, Jamie Fobert, said the current narrow entrance was a result of an important Victorian donor insisting that it be placed as close to Trafalgar Square as possible so as not to face the then more disreputable areas of London. After 2023 it will point to Soho.

Outside Fobert plans to create a public forecourt, rejuvenating what is a rather shabby, sad area of railings and bins. A statue of the Victorian actor Henry Irving will remain, although moved by five metres.

“At the moment it feels like an incredibly unsafe space at night, a certain amount of antisocial behaviour happens behind Henry Irving,” said Fobert.

All the relevant bodies have been consulted and are supportive, he said, apart from some niggling fears that street performers who ply their trade in Trafalgar Square may relocate.

“I think Westminster [council] have said that there is a constant concern about how many Yodas you can have on that pavement in front of the National Gallery and whether that is something that is going to happen here.”

Another key part of the project is to create new gallery space in the building’s east wing, which is being used as offices.

All the building’s galleries will be refurbished to bring a consistency that does not currently exist as rooms have been updated at different times. “The effect of this is to create quite a fragmented experience for our visitors, the decor and ambience changes quite a bit as you walk around,” said Cullinan.

The redevelopment will create 20% more public space, although the display space will remain about the same.

Contemporary and 20th-century portraits, which often get displaced or moved because of temporary exhibitions, will be more consistently displayed.

Cullinan said: “The most common question that visitors ask is ‘Why does nobody here look like me?’”

The gallery has raised £27.4m for the project and hopes the public will be moved to contribute to the £8m that remains to be found. People can sponsor a piece of mosaic in the new forecourt for £50 or, for £50,000, adopt one of the 18 original stone busts of people such as Joshua Reynolds on the exterior of the building.

Work is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2020.


Mark Brown

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
National Portrait Gallery to close for three years for revamp
London gallery’s works to tour regional galleries across the UK before it reopens in 2023

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

05, Nov, 2019 @5:36 PM

Article image
'Hatchet fiend' suffragette celebrated by National Portrait Gallery in London
Anne Hunt slashed a Millais painting with a cleaver in 1914

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

29, Jan, 2018 @3:52 PM

Article image
Rare old master drawings to be shown at National Portrait Gallery
Very light-sensitive, seldom-viewed works by Rembrandt, Leonardo, Dürer, Holbein, Rubens in forthcoming exhibition

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

16, Feb, 2017 @5:52 PM

Article image
Masterpieces and margaritas: National Portrait Gallery to open new bar as part of revamp
London gallery will be latest institution to offer after-hours events when it reopens in June after a £35m refurbishment

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

13, Apr, 2023 @4:00 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery unveils Malala Yousafzai picture
Nobel prize winner says she hopes portrait will remind visitors of girls’ fight for change

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

02, Oct, 2018 @12:07 PM

Article image
Rankin's scarlet women on show at National Portrait Gallery

Portraits of models wearing creations by UK designers to hang beside paintings from collection which inspired them

Maev Kennedy

30, Jan, 2011 @7:21 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery: counting error underestimates visitor numbers
Amount of attendees appeared to halve during 2017-18 when actual figure only fell by 10%

Mattha Busby

28, Aug, 2018 @5:04 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery buys painting of young Dylan Thomas
Cherubic painting by the Welsh poet’s friend Augustus John has been acquired for £214,750

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

16, Aug, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery secures £9.4m lottery grant for expansion
London gallery wants to increase exhibition space by 20% with proposal to refurbish east wing offices

Maev Kennedy

15, Jun, 2017 @3:23 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery launches appeal to buy Wellington painting
Gallery needs to raise £300,000 to acquire unfinished Duke of Wellington portrait – and plug a 160-year-old gap in its collection

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

03, Nov, 2016 @2:30 PM