Artillery Row On Art

A fresh face for an old friend

The National Portrait Galley’s renovation doesn’t disappoint, bringing light and space to tell the story of the nation

For decades, I have arranged to meet people at the National Portrait Gallery in London next to a painting or photograph I thought they might like: a young Joshua Reynolds shielding his eyes, perhaps, or the sulky teenage Beatles shot in Hamburg by Astrid Kirchherr, or Warhol’s row of blank Marilyns.

Its collection made the gallery one of London’s great, romantic settings, up there with the clock at Waterloo station or the members’ lounge at the Royal Festival Hall. However, the Grade-I listed neoclassical gallery itself was always awkward and incoherent, more tolerated than enjoyed.

Londoners can now meet one another in a lighter, more convivial building

The keeper of more than 220,000 portraits of “the people who have shaped British history and culture” has been closed for renovation for more than three years. It reopened this week with a vibrant refresh that is long overdue.

Ewan Christian, its first architect, specialised in building and restoring English churches rather than neoclassical art galleries, and it tended to show. In the past, simply getting inside was a minor ordeal, with visitors forced to navigate frustratingly tiny revolving doors. In 1966, just 70 years after it was built, Ian Nairn deadpanned about its dark galleries and walls overcrowded with paintings: “not a place for claustrophobes”.

The Ondaatje Wing, added in 2000, brought a generous new central hall and the swanky Portrait restaurant. It improved the flow, though its millennium-era slick felt jarring in the middle of gloomy late-Victoriana.

Now, the gallery’s latest upgrade means Londoners can meet one another in a lighter, more convivial building that feels continuous throughout. It has opened up windows, doors, even a courtyard that have been hidden for decades. More than 1,800 square metres have been added, including a basement-level education centre.

Jamie Fobert, the Canadian-born British-based architect who led the project, is unusual in his field in that he, like his work, appears to be entirely ego-free. He is 60, friendly, almost puppyish and not at all grand. He says one of his favourite things about being an architect is “not being famous”.

Fobert tells me over a stand-up coffee in Pret that above all, his aim was for people who have never visited the National Portrait Gallery before to assume it has always looked the way it does now. He adds — and he makes this point with a little bounce on his heels — that buildings should never detract from art.

The word that comes up most regularly about Fobert’s architectural style is “modest”, though I think “poised” is more appropriate at the National Portrait Gallery — walnut and marble are expensive, after all, and £41.3 million is a big budget.

Room 25 at the new National Portrait Gallery, “The First World War to the Bright Young Things”. (Picture Credit: David Parry)

His past projects, including the 2018 extension to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and the 2017 extension to Tate St Ives, are characterised by featherlight restraint. His practice won the National Portrait Gallery job over bigger, flashier shortlisted names, including OMA, Adjaye Associates and Caruso St John.

Working with heritage architects Purcell, led by Liz Smith, Fobert’s first and most obvious improvement is the entrance lobby.

Christian had placed his doorway within the lofty sight of St Martin’s in the Field and resolutely away from London’s then-slummier districts up Charing Cross Road. Now, visitors enter on the north-facing side, walking through an extended forecourt full of benches where a dismal triangle of fenced-off lawn once stood. We enter the gallery up wide granite steps and through one of three glass doors, four metres high with bronze panels.

The doors are decorated with unobtrusive relief panels by Tracey Emin, line-drawn faces of anonymous women. Fobert points out that now, even when the gallery doors are locked at four o’clock on a West End morning, anyone can admire an original, contemporary portrait.

A generous new lobby, drenched in light with a striking marble mosaic floor, has been carved out of what were once galleries. To the left is a bright new shop, roughly twice the size of the old one. This was redesigned by a different firm, Alex Cochrane Architects, which has placed a few lovely, battered prototype busts for the original facade carvings of great painters about the walls. They were discovered in storage.

Beyond Emin’s panels, the first real art that visitors see is unashamedly populist: a collection of sculptures, led by Ian Homer Walter’s bust of Nelson Mandela and a smaller version of Reaching Out, Thomas J Price’s contemporary portrait of an anonymous woman gazing at her smartphone.

Picture Credit: Gareth Gardner for Nissen Richards Studio

Beyond, a selection of photographs and paintings in the Ondaatje Hall have been chosen to reflect contemporary British preoccupations: Jamie Coreth’s 2022 painting of the Prince and Princess of Wales, she in a metallic-green Vampire’s Wife dress; Kae Tempest, Ed Sheeran.

Some of this selection is good (including a stand-out portrait of Stormzy with his mother Abigail Owuo, shot in an Oxford pub by Olivia Rose); some of it is kitsch. It doesn’t really matter. The British lack confidence these days and need a boost. Anyway, everyone knows the finest portraits are in the galleries beyond.

There has been no grief and bitterness flung around over Charing Cross Road

Here are more improvements, less obvious than the lobby. All the galleries have been restored by Fobert and Purcell; their teak herringbone floors have regained deep lustre, the roof lights covered in the war have been reinstated; infilled arches reopened.

A new café, in the place of the old shop, is disappointing: a long, thin space decorated in the bland-ish style of the modern private members’ club, all velvet upholstery and cod fin-de-siècle fittings. Still, the bright, wide windows, previously blackened over for reasons nobody seems to quite understand, make up for it. “The gallery looked derelict from Charing Cross Road,” says Fobert. Teak casements have been restored, and the windows now offer full sight of plane trees.

This quietly confident upgrade sits in contrast to the protracted convulsions at the National Portrait Gallery’s neighbour, the National Gallery, over contentious plans by Selldorf Architects to overhaul the 30 year-old Sainsbury Wing on Trafalgar Square, effectively the gallery’s entrance lobby. One critic described the Selldorf plans as “an act of vandalism” and “ubiquitous corporate, airport concourse aesthetics”. There has been no such grief and bitterness flung around over Charing Cross Road, though the project was less charged.

The National Portrait Gallery claims to be the first portrait gallery in the world. It certainly has the most extensive permanent collection in the world. Fobert’s elegant new look and upgrades to the building’s fabric — what he terms “honest repairs” — finally reflect that status. It is now inviting, reassuring and still one of London’s top romantic settings. All comers are welcome.

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