In 2020, the National Portrait Gallery closed for renovations. And they were much needed, said Laura Freeman in The Times: its entrance hall was “poky”, and its collection “dusty and undervisited” – overshadowed by the museum’s “shiny, shouty” temporary exhibitions. It has since undergone “a £41m makeover” helmed by Jamie Fobert Architects – and the result, I’m happy to say, is a triumph.
This is not a “tweakment”, it is a full-scale overhaul: new public spaces have been created, the gallery’s basement has been expanded, and its collection completely rehung in order to tell a “serious, stylish history of our nation and its people”, from the Tudor era to the present day. The galleries, repainted in “imperial purple, royal blue and guardsman red”, are simply “magnificent”: you’ll see everything from works by Hogarth and Holbein to Paul McCartney’s photograph of a smoking George Harrison. The captions, meanwhile, are written in “English, not the usual gallery garble”, providing “balance”, “clarity” and “context”. Most importantly, the revamped museum exudes “a real sense of delight in the making and materials of art”.
The refurb has evidently taken “immense effort”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. The lighting of the galleries is superb, the curation “erudite and thoughtful”. This can’t, however, disguise the fact that this is “a museum with barely any great art in it”. Its collection is stuffed with so-so paintings attributed to unnamed studio hands or followers of artists such as van Dyck. Some new works have been acquired in the past three years, but many of these aren’t up to much. Even a portrait of Mai, a Pacific Islander, by Joshua Reynolds that the gallery describes as its most significant acquisition in years, doesn’t “hold your gaze long”. Despite the refurb, the NPG is back where it always was: “as a collection of notable faces with no regard for artistic depth”.
That’s a bit harsh, said Ben Luke in the Evening Standard. Certainly, some of the contemporary works – notably a “dreadful” double portrait of the Prince and Princess of Wales – “make me wince”. Yet there’s plenty of fascinating stuff here. Highlights include a room of death masks of figures including those of William Blake and William Wordsworth; a “brooding” self-portrait bust by Jacob Epstein; and Michael Armitage’s “visionary” tapestry depicting refuse collectors during the pandemic. Even the doors, onto which Tracey Emin has etched a series of 45 female faces, are interesting. Elsewhere, holdings of works by female and ethnic-minority artists have been augmented significantly, making a visit a “more democratic, more diverse” experience. The renovations have been a real success, transforming what was once “one of the world’s most underwhelming” major art galleries into an impressively modern museum.
National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020-7306 0055, npg.org.uk). Now open to the public