A collection of some of the world’s most famous faces will come together under the one roof this weekend with the opening of Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery London.
Australia’s National Portrait Gallery will host the exhibition of more than 80 treasured portraits on exclusive loan for the show in Canberra while the London gallery undergoes extensive building renovations.
The portraits date from the 16th century to the present day, from William Shakespeare to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, singer Amy Winehouse to the literary Bronte sisters and writer Charles Dickens to sportsman David Beckham. They are the faces of people who have shaped Britain’s history, identity and culture over the past 500 years.
The exhibition also tells the story of the people behind the faces. The Shakespeare portrait, circa 1600, by John Taylor and given to the London gallery by the first Earl of Ellesmere, Francis Egerton, is believed to be the only portrait of the bard that can claim to be painted from life. It was also the first work to enter the London gallery’s collection when it opened in 1856.
The 1834 portrait of the Bronte sisters, too, is believed to be the only one of the women captured on canvas together – as painted by their brother Patrick Branwell Bronte. Long thought to be lost, it was found folded up on top of a cupboard in 1914. When purchased, the gallery decided not to restore it, but to retain the fold marks and paint losses. While this illustrated its neglect prior to acquisition, it also proved integral to the painting’s integrity.
National Portrait Gallery director Karen Quinlan AM, said it was rare for such treasures to leave the London gallery and she was delighted to play host to them in Canberra.
“There is a broad and diverse range of artistic styles and genres from an important list of artists, each in their own way capturing the icons of their time – royals, rock stars, fashion models, leaders and literary giants,” she said.
“This is a big picture exhibition of British art, culture and history.”
Many of the artists represented in the exhibition are internationally renowned, both past and present, including Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Peter Paul Rubens, Shirin Neshat, Tracey Emin, Auguste Rodin, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Andy Warhol and Lord Snowden.
Exhibition curator Joanna Gilmour said visitors to the exhibition would be treated to visual storytelling at its best, whilst also illustrating that portraiture could often take on a life of its own.
“One of the many strengths of Shakespeare to Winehouse is the way it demonstrates the inventiveness and complexity of a genre that is often typecast as staid and conservative,” she said. “The rich storytelling tradition that is intrinsic to portraiture will be abundantly evident in this exhibition as well.”
Rather than showcase the works chronologically, the exhibition focuses on six related themes: fame, power, loss, identity, innovation and self, showing how defining characteristics of portraiture have been reinterpreted by artists across time and showing how portraits can share the same language despite being created centuries apart.
Shakespeare to Winehouse: Icons from the National Portrait Gallery London opens at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, on Saturday 12 March and runs until 17 July, 2022.