A Place of Peace: the National Portrait Gallery

Above: Room One: Tudor Collection. ©National Portrait Gallery.

Whenever I’m in London, there’s one place I always try and go to. I like to walk up Whitehall, through Trafalgar Square and past whatever protest is on at the time (last time it was an anti-mask one, pfft) and round to the tucked away haven of the National Portrait Gallery. On arrival, and after donating a couple of quid as my entry free, I head onto the escalator taking me up to the second floor. As I ascend, a sense of quietness, peace, comfort, comes over me, as if I’m heading home. I am in a way. 

I’m led to the second floor, home of the Tudor Collection. This is where I belong. I’ve been in love with the Tudor dynasty for so long, learning about the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth during my A-levels; writing about the threat of Catholicism and Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Elizabeth’s throne for my undergraduate dissertation; analysing the love between Henry and his six wives (verdict: there wasn’t much); and researching the relationship between Elizabeth and her ‘favourite’, Robert Dudley, for my Master’s dissertation. So I feel like I know these people, and visiting their portraits feel like I’m visiting them.

I start with Richard III. Being painted in the late 16th Century, it’s seen as evidence for his evil nature. I like to look into his eyes and offer my sympathies: you were never as bad as they made out, you didn’t kill those princes (personally, I think they died of natural causes and then swept under the carpet to avoid martyrdom and uprisings).

Hanging around the portraits of Henry VIII and some of his wives and advisors in the corner of Room One, I love listening to other visitors discussing Tudor history: who was evil, which wife was who, was Anne Boleyn a witch, did Thomas More deserve what he got? This is what I love about museums and galleries: they are spaces for discovery and learning, for discussion, and it always makes me smile to hear people having these conversations.

Next, I always like to pause on Edward VI, mimicking his father in the Whitehall Cartoon. What I love about this portrait is that it shows the stark contrast between monarch as an office and a monarch as a person. In imitating his father’s pose, we see Edward dressed to the nines with a wide and powerful stance, demonstrating his role as sovereign. But look closer, and the person inhabiting those garments is, quite obviously, just a boy, with skinny legs and a child-like feminine face. I think he might be overcompensating for something. It always fascinates me to see.

Edward VI
PHOTOGRAPH BY ©National Portrait Gallery
Henry VIII
PHOTOGRAPH BY ©National Portrait Gallery

Moving into Room Two, I love to appreciate the truly genius curation of the portraits by the NPG. First is Elizabeth I’s Coronation Portrait, documenting my favourite monarch in elegance and youth, sitting in an equally impressive frame. What I love most though, is that next to Elizabeth has been hung a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots. Slightly smaller portrait, in a less ornate frame, sitting slightly lower on the gallery wall. Having battled Mary in a game of one-upmanship for a good twenty-odd years, I think Elizabeth would be chuffed with this.

Similarly, I love the curation of Elizabeth’s Darnley Portrait next to her ‘favourite,’ Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. At this point, I usually take a seat in the middle of the gallery and spend some time admiring the pair. Having done a fair bit of reading and research on their relationship, it always fills me with a hint of sadness that they could never marry. A woman of duty, Elizabeth places her role as monarch and mother of the nation above her potential role as a wife, and I think to give that up almost broke her heart. So in a way, I find comfort and peace in the fact that, even though in life they could never be together, they have been memorialised as such. Hooray for love and good curation.

One time, I met up with some old history course friends in London, and of course, we visited the Tudor collection at the NPG. We asked some fellow visitors to take a photo of us by Elizabeth’s coronation portrait. After doing so, our photographer asked us why we wanted a photo with Elizabeth. We said we loved and admired her, and again the lady asked us why. ‘She’s just so amazing,’ we said,’ the way she bought peace and tolerance to a nation so long riddled with war and turbulence. The way she was so strong as an independent queen. Her sassy attitude and temper. The way she once threw a slipper at Walsingham and slapped Essex in the face. She’s just awesome!’

‘Yes… I suppose she is, I think I love her too now’ said our photographer.

This is why I love museums and galleries. The opportunity to share my passion brings me such joy. Visiting the NPG brings me such peace. I’m gutted that the gallery will be closed until 2023 due to major refurbishments. I cannot wait to rush back.

Loving Elizabeth

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Ellie King

Ellie is a PhD student researching exhibition development and visitor experience at the University of Warwick and the Oxford University of Natural History. A historian by trade, and a massive early modern geek, Ellie’s interests are in the Tudors, the Reformation, gender politics and the monarchy. Ellie can be found on Twitter @ellietheking