National Portrait Gallery boosts female representation with five new self-portraits

Paintings highlighting stories of women who have helped shape British culture are part of three-year project by NPG

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired five self-portraits by female artists as part of a three-year project to enhance the representation of women in its collection.

The gallery, which is currently closed for a major refurbishment, said the works highlighted stories of women who have helped shape British culture.

The portraits, created between the early 1970s and 2019, address issues of identity and gender stereotypes, said Flavia Frigeri, a curator at the NPG.

“They are not just portraiture of likeness, someone simply depicting themselves. The importance of these five acquisitions is they show the multifaceted identity of an artist, but also of women more generally,” she said.

They include the first painted self-portrait by a black female artist in the gallery’s collection. Everlyn Nicodemus’s Självporträtt, Åkersberga layers multiple faces in recognition of her roles as artist, writer, mother and wife.

jälvporträtt, Åkersberga by Everlyn Nicodemus, 1982.
jälvporträtt, Åkersberga by Everlyn Nicodemus, 1982. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London/Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery

Speaking about the painting, Nicodemus, who emigrated from Tanzania to Sweden in the 1970s and eventually settled in the UK, said: “I exhibited myself as a subject, showing every part of myself, my problems, my hopes, my conflicts – my whole life … It was a form of psychological survival.”

Rose Finn-Kelcey was a major figure in the contemporary British art scene for more than four decades. Since her death in 2014, her work has been the subject of greater attention for its engagement with ideas around feminism, spirituality and commodity culture, the NPG said.

Her self-portrait, Preparatory Study for “Divided Self”, shows two images of herself engaging in conversation while sitting on a bench at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park.

By speaking to herself in a place where people have made speeches since the mid-19th century, her self-portrait highlights how women’s voices have traditionally been unheard.

Chila Kumari Burman is also depicted twice in her 1988 self-portrait, Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed, taking the distinct roles of a young woman at rest and a warrior.

Celia Paul’s painting, Portrait, Eyes Lowered, is intimate and emotionally intense. It was created as part of a series of self-portraits in conjunction with her 2019 memoir, in which she documents her relationship with Lucian Freud, who painted her many times.

She said recently: “To see one’s self truthfully is one of the most challenging things for an artist… self-hatred is as invalid as self-love. Both things are false.”

Susan Hiller’s Ace (Retrieved) is part of the artist’s series of portraits and self-portraits based on photobooth images. Hiller, who died in 2019, saw photobooths as an unfiltered medium, accessible to everyone, including “those who don’t own or can’t borrow cameras”.

Frigeri said: “Each of these self-portraits challenges traditional notions of female self-representation and identity.”

When the National Portrait Gallery reopens next year, it “will have many more women being celebrated on the walls – not only artists, but women from all walks of life, lawmakers, designers, gardeners, you name it,” she added.

“This has plagued a lot of institutions for a very long time. Female sitters and work by women were not considered a priority for many decades.”

The NPG’s acquisition of the five self-portraits is part of a three-year project in partnership with the Chanel Culture Fund.

• This article was amended on 8 March 2022 to correct the spelling of the surname of Susan Hiller.


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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