National Portrait Gallery Art Galleries

National Portrait Gallery
St Martins Place
Greater London


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The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856 to collect the likeness of famous British men and women, today the collection is the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

Above the entrance of the Gallery are the busts of the three men - all biographers and historians - chiefly responsible for the Gallery's existence.

In the centre is Philip Henry Stanhope, 5th Earl Stanhope (1805-1875); his efforts resulted in the Gallery's foundation in 1856; he is flanked by two of his staunchest supporters, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).

Stanhope first introduced the idea to the House of Commons in 1846; he tried again in 1852 and after he took his seat in the House of Lords he tried for a third time in 1856.

On 4 March he made a statement to the House of Lords pleading for the establishment of a National Portrait Gallery, '...a gallery of original portraits, such portraits to consist as far as possible of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in arts, in literature or in science'. Stanhope urged the immediate foundation of the Gallery in temporary accommodation, and with Queen Victoria's approval, three months after the debate, the House of Commons agreed to vote a sum of £2000 towards the establishment of a "British Historical Portrait Gallery".

The National Portrait Gallery was formally established on 2 December 1856, and amongst its founder Trustees were Stanhope as Chairman, Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Ellesmere, a former Trustee of the National Gallery, who offered to the nation the so-called Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, which became the first picture to enter the Gallery's collection. On Ellesmere's death in 1857 Carlyle became a Trustee.

The National Portrait Gallery was established with the criteria that the Gallery was to be about history, not about art, and about the status of the sitter, rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art.

This criterion is still used by the Gallery today when deciding which works enter the National Portrait Gallery's collection.

Originally, it was decided by the Trustees that "No portrait of any person still living, or deceased less that 10 years, shall be admitted by purchase, donation, or bequest, except only in the case of the reigning Sovereign, and of his or her Consort".

This rule changed in 1969 in order to encourage a policy of admitting living sitters.

Attraction Details

VenueNational Portrait Gallery
AddressSt Martins Place, London, Greater London, WC2H 0HE
Opening times
Entry costs
Attraction typeArt Galleries


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