Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Purusing Portraits at the Gallery

September 3, 2010 · 1 Comment

Upon entering the National Portrait Gallery at its opening, I was struck by the immense size of the collection. For an art museum that had so narrow a focus, I was not expecting three full floors of work.

Beginning at the top floor, the museum took a chronological approach to the presentation of the portraits. One started going through rooms filled with portraits of the Tudors and ended observing portraits from the last decade on the bottom floor. The collection portrayed royalty, politicians, writers, musicians, artists, scientists, and other notable figures. Some of the artwork was surprisingly cynical in nature, while most were glorifications of their subjects. The term ‘national’ clearly was referring to the United Kingdom and not just England, given the presence of figures like James Joyce. Also, the collection seemed to feature figures that were mainly associated with the UK, as Handel was featured despite the fact he was born, and grew up, in Germany. A clear emphasis was placed on the rich and famous, while relatively none of the works portrayed the lower classes. Also, no one associated with the British Empire, such as Gandhi, was included.

The portrait I decided to focus on was that of Sir Francis Drake, located on the second floor. As we were not allowed to take pictures in the museum, I have provided a link here: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01932/Sir-Francis-Drake?search=ss&firstRun=true&sText=sir+francis+drake&LinkID=mp01357&role=sit&rNo=o   

The painting of the famous navigator is not particularly flattering or, quite frankly, well painted. He stands before the observers at an odd angle, holding an oddly (aka poorly) shaped globe resting on a table for balance. Drake is dressed in a garish pink outfit, with a cape that looks too stiff too be real. His arms appear to be different sizes, and legs appear to be much larger than his torso. Looking at his face, his cheeks appear to be inflated, making him look more like a comical figure than the daring naval admiral and pirate that he was. He stands with a slight arrogant look, as if ready to take over the world (something his nation would effectively try to do in the coming decades). Looking at the portrait, it is hard to get over the poor quality of the painting. With the dismal proportions, poor color scheme, and lack of inspiration, you would almost wonder if the artist is unknown because he or she was ashamed of the work.

I picked this painting because I was so struck by its poor quality, particularly in relation to many of the other works in the National Portrait Gallery. One could almost see the work as an accidental representation of the British Empire’s colonial overreach. With the country moving so quickly to expand, one can understand the rush to make heroes out of these new explorers, evident in this portrait of Sir Francis Drake. Unfortunately, just as the Empire was built on a weak moral foundation, the picture falls victim to poor artistry. Therefore, one could read the portrait as a representation of the weaknesses of imperialism… or one can just see it as a really bad painting.

Categories: 2010 Andrew
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