Sunday, 25 November 2012

National Portrait Gallery: McClintock, BP Portrait of the Year and King James

The National Portrait Gallery in London (near Trafalgar Square) is one of my regular locations for dropping  in for a coffee and “view” the odd painting from time to time.  The layout is a bit labyrinthine though the guards are helpful in finding an object, painting or temporary exhibition.  Some months ago I visited some photos and prints to do with Richard Hamilton and was taken to the location.  I soon found myself in the company of other visitors who were quite happy to share their thoughts and read out the odd picture label. 

On the occasion of the BP Portrait of the Year I went to the front desk.  It is upstairs or up lift (elevator) and got further directions.  I wandered around and liked a few portraits and went back to the start and asked one of the attendants for some help.  Sarah and Peter took me round and we discussed several paintings.  As usual the subject of titanium dioxide came up in some very bright pictures.  Peter also paints and we discussed Zinc Oxide and Lead Oxide.  The bookshops are also helpful in finding the occasional postcard and even a book. 

The last Thursday of the month is the date for the NPG “Visualisation” for visually impaired people.  ( It is also a chance to meet other people.  We tend to gather across from the information desk.  You can always ask to be taken to the painting in advance to see what you can make of it and the neighbouring pictures.  Often a reference is made to some other portraits in the vicinity. 
Esther Collins organises much of the activity and is a mine of information as is the NPG website.  ( I am not so familiar with this one and Esther explained the accession numbering system (No 1 is Shakespeare) Esther was also pleased that I had wandered into the BP Portrait show on my own as they have encouraged the attendants to engage more with visitors in general and I have noted this though I have become more familiar over the building and organisational structure.    There are usually a few interns at our sessions and gradually more awareness of visually impaired visitors is being shown.

The subject for the September talk was McClintock, an Arctic explorer.  ( He is portrayed in the kit of an Arctic explorer of the day, though painted in a studio.  Examples of other McClintock portraits were passed round (he is in Naval uniform and the NPG has a reserve copy) There is also a photograph of this Victorian gentleman.  (This picture is almost opposite from the Kitchener described in my post ) In place of military accessories such as sword, belt, pips and epaulettes we have all sorts of gadgets on display.  

There is quite a story behind McClintock and his search for Franklyn who went missing.  The painting itself is quite stylised and reflects the almost photographic detail at the time.  Having heard Sir Ranulph Fiennes speak at a lunch before about his state of being frostbitten and exhaustion on some of these expeditions, this McClintock portrait resembles more a renaissance ideal of the “Victorian Arctic Explorer”.  The race for the Arctic and Antarctic was underway and was often between Norwegian explorers such as Amundsen and Nansen and the British explorers.  With global warming and the disappearance of some of the Arctic ice does this painting represent a scientific record at all?  Did the gadgets arrayed around McClintock provide any scientific data at all?  Fascinating topics for discussion.  A portrait can direct so much interest. 

25th October

The October portrait was that of King James VI/I as painted by the Flemish painter Daniel Mytens.  King James is sandwiched between his son Charles (later King Charles) and his daughter Elizabeth (later Queen of Bohemia).  Our describer was Marion Cole, who reminded me that we had met before at the description of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare. (

This portrait of King James is rather motionless and illustrates the King’s show of power.  He is seated in his chair of estate and is in the dress of a Knight of the Garter with all the associated regalia.  Marion said that the pose resembled that of Pope Julius II and King James had maintained his position in the Church of England while setting in train a divine right theology which proved a disaster for his son Charles. 
Prof Whitestick by the portrait of King James I
National Portrait Gallery, London

The Garter star can just about be made out and the King is shown with the garter on his left leg.  King James is shown with almost platform shoes to increase his height appearance.  Marion described the portrait geometry with the colours of red and white dominating the king, and a blue frame of the inside lining of his Garter mantle. 

I asked about the rapier and it is described as jewelled.  Marion could not identify the clasp like object and I wondered if it could have been a dagger hilt.  We had a discussion about some diamond described as black.  A passing guide remarked that diamonds have no shining effect until the facets are cut, so this diamond may have been a precious stone left unset, though we wondered how a glittering diamond would have been portrayed. 

Currently the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition on Prince Henry Stuart.  He is the sister of Elizabeth Stuart (I am photographed with the Robert Peake portrait of Elizabeth Stuart the Winter Queen of Bohemia).  Prince Henry died quite young and some treasures have been put together.  The exhibition is interesting as it reflects Jacobean history.  King James I/VI has a mixed reputation, the “Wisest fool in Christendom” springs to mind. 

27th October

My visit to the Lost Prince exhibition is covered in a separate post relating to the exhibition itself with references to the portraits in the Stuart family both here in London and some of those from Scotland.  The link is: