My favourite painting in the National Portrait Gallery – London, England

The National Portrait Gallery in England has over 11,000 primary portraits. This is my favourite one.

National Portrait Gallery London
Bookmark: The Crown Companion Book. It was one of the more recent books I read that reminded me of my interest in British History beyond TV, and subtly got me interested in Churchill’s legacy (tbh, trickery is a pretty effective method of learning for me)
Waypoint: 51.5094° N, 0.1281° W

Generally, I’m a huge huge fan of common threads – the little things that bring big stories together in your mind, or the creation of a whole story or world within the frame of a real story. One of my favourite examples is that Queen Elizabeth II’s friend Lord Porchester was also the 7th Earl of Carnavon, who was the grandson of the 5th Earl, who financed the Egypt dig that uncovered King Tut’s tomb. The Earl’s estate was Highclere Castle, which is famously known as Downton Abbey in the PBS show. The name of Hugh Bonneville’s dog in the show Pharaoh (and later Isis) is a clever little tribute to this history. I loved discovering the fact that things I loved individually (the Queen, the Crown, Egypt, and Downton Abbey) had a thread that links them all pretty closely.

So back to the Crown (there’s a thread here, I promise!). I didn’t know much about Winston Churchill or his life or legacy until I started watching the Crown. Let’s just say that during that time, most of my down-the-rabbit-hole time gaps involved Googling Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Churchill. While I don’t purport to know everything (or even the full highlights!) of his career, I at least recognize him a little faster in images. You’ll know from the show (or maybe from actual life!) about the portrait of himself that was done on his 80th Birthday, which he absolutely hated. I know of maybe one additional portrait of him but my Churchill-art related knowledge ended there.

I walked into the National Portrait Gallery (not to be confused with the National Gallery) one sunny morning, not expecting to be particularly impressed – my interest in art is pretty narrow – I generally enjoy 1750-1830 paintings that depict scenery rife with symbolism and minor detail. It’s like its own little treasure map (is it too cringe-y if I say that the treasure is knowledge? Ugh it is).

Anyway, so it was pleasant enough to see portraits of Charles Darwin and Ed Sheeran, but not particularly groundbreaking. I then strolled into one of the rooms and glanced to my left and started a little. I had made eye contact with someone. He was staring. It was Winston Churchill.

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No, it wasn’t his ghost. I had entered the room where the “Statesmen of World War I” was located. It is a ridiculously large painting, measuring 13ft x 11ft. 13ft is the height of the portrait so it towers over you a lot more than the other portraits in the room that are also large, but are wider than its height. Churchill is seated and located roughly at the centre of the group. Some of the other men depicted are sort of looking at the viewer, but none look as directly as Churchill. The painting shines even more light on him and the area around him is significantly lighter than the other men. The painting was commissioned by Sir Abe Bailey and was painted by Sir James Guthrie during 1924-1930. He unfortunately died before he could put the finishing touches on the portrait.

National Portrait Gallery Statesmen

Who were the other people and how were they chosen? The full listing of names and their accomplishments can be found at the National Portrait Gallery’s website. The men included in the painting were chosen by the Board of Trustees of the the Gallery. It was agreed that the painting should include British and Dominion civilian leaders that were in office both at the beginning and the end of the First World War. It includes Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, and New Zealand, the Foreign Secretaries, Secretaries of War, and First Lords of the Admiralty of the United Kingdom, together with two leaders of the British Conservative and Labour parties. The Maharaja of Bikaner was also included as he was a member of the Imperial War Cabinet and the Indian delegate to the Versailles Peace Conference. Each of the men sat individually for their paintings except General Kitchener, who perished in the sinking of HMS Hampshire in 1916. The fact that his portrait was done posthumously could explain why he is so deeply in shadow and backing the viewer.

Statesmen of WW1

So back to Churchill. The Pop culture phenomenons that were the Office and Parks & Recreation really propelled the “mockumentary” series to fame, where whenever someone does something odd or funny, one of the characters look directly at the camera (and therefore the viewer), as if to share the joke or exasperation. You can practically hear the “whomp-whomp” playing. That was my first thought when I saw the portrait (after ‘oh this is a painting and not some creep staring at me’). But when you step back and look at it as a whole, its really just a fantastic image – You can’t help but feel you’ve stepped in on an actual meeting and interrupted them mid-sentence. You can see the seriousness of the debate and just the intensity of each man.

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Perhaps the thing that clinched it for me was drawing my eyes up almost to the ceiling to the seemingly empty dark and light expanses above the men. Because of the lighting in the gallery, I didn’t focus right away, but after skimming the description board and jerking my eyes back up to the image, I made out the famous Winged Victory of Samothrace sculpture. The lighting in the photos I took also don’t show it properly, but you can view it better on the Gallery’s website.

If I’ve ever talked your ear off (that’s the only kind of talking I do, kid) about my Louvre experience, you’ll know that that is one of my absolute favourite sculptures ever. It represents the Goddess Nike, and its stance and posture – the shoulders and position of wings just exudes power and victory and general badassery. It looks like she is standing facing the wind, and is generally believed to have been her stance after a sea battle. The sculpture’s head and arms are missing but personally I feel it is one of the things that makes the sculpture look so powerful. You can read more about her here.

Winged Victory of Samothrace Louvre
Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre

This kickass goddess of Victory stands over this group of men integral to the World War I battle, symbolically reminding you of the War’s result. It also pulls you a little into the direction of the whole “divine being + man” genre, which is a post for another day.

So. The portrait draws together one of my favourite sculptures of all time, symbolically casting light and a feeling of victory, and a man that features prominently in history prior to and during the fabulously fascinating reign of the Queen. What a great thread! Plus, the tablecloth is kinda cute.

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