National Portrait Gallery

For this assignment, each student was tasked with finding a portrait and recording our reactions.


Sarah Siddons, by Hannah

What struck me most about this painting is the fact she is clearly posing.  A lot of the paintings within this wing were portraits to remember these significant people.  Hers, however, is very theatrical compared to the others.  She is holding both a mask and a dagger with a smirk on her face.  Very uncommon for a woman to be portrayed in this manor. Sarah Siddons is known as one of the greatest tragic actresses of all time. “This portrait was probably inspired by her performances as Lady Macbeth, her most famous role” (National Portrait Gallery) We heard about her fame during the Covent Garden walking tour.  They renamed to Siddons Court to honor the beloved actress because it was a hang out spot for her.

Her start was she was from a family of traveling actors so theatre was always available to her. She fell in love with an actor, John Siddons, within the family troupe but was sent away to work as a lady’s maid because her parents disapproved.  Eventually true love won and they were married at Trinity Church in 1773. She would go on to lead a mostly successful career and was known as “Queen of Tragedy” or “Queen of Drury Lane.”  In 1783 she was appointed to teach elocution to the royal children. She retired from the regular stage on June 29, 1812” (Encyclopedia Britannica) She was adored!

Dr. Samuel Johnson, by AJjohnson

I was first drawn to the portrait because I’d spent some time researching the man within the frame. Several portraits of Johnson exist, but this is the first I’ve seen where he does not look otherwise occupied. In other portraits, Johnson’s eyes are hooded as he sinks into the self, but here, Johnson looks alert and seeking another presence. While it’s certain the sketch to the right is an unfinished base for someone else, the swimming face appeared to me, with a bit of imagination, as a physical visitation or confrontation with the fear of his own mind that vexed him his whole life.


Erasmus Darwin, by Ryan

A physician and member of the Lunar Society, Darwin wrote The Botanic Garden (1791), a best-selling popular scientific work in rhyming couplets. Sociable, eccentric, and inventive, his original ideas on evolution, propounded in his Zoonomia: Or, the Laws of Organic Life (1794-96), were seminal influence on his grandson Charles Darwin (This was found on the plaque below the portrait).

I walked through a few rooms, just trying to gather all of what I was seeing. The number one thing I looked for when looking for a painting, was the eyes, “the window into the soul”. I needed to see that, I knew that would draw me into what I needed to find. I found him, I stared at him for a while, right into his eyes just as if I was meeting the man in person, those blue painted eyes. I saw a kind soul looking at me, but something clicked, there was a familiar about him that I could not place then I noticed his arms, the way they are crossed, like a lion sitting in the grass, I realized I was looking at the same pose I saw many times, it was my dad’s shape. This form he was in, is a shadow of what my father looked like when I would talk to him at night at the kitchen table, I saw a man looking right back at me it was startling and yet comforting all at the same time. A single tear rolled down my cheek and I knew in that moment, I was moved.

Jeremy Irons, by Nigel

I was surprised when I came across a pencil drawing of Jeremy Irons by Stuart Pearson Wright, at the National Portrait Gallery. I have been a fan of his film work, and though I have never had the opportunity to see him on stage I am certain I would enjoy him equally there as well. At first I was simply taken by who was depicted in the portrait but it developed into more contemplation. His body position and facial expression made him appear to be in deep thought himself. The placement of the notepad making the implication that there was intellectual work to be done. I wondered if that’s what he looked like when preparing for a role. He could have sat on that very bench to memorize countless lines. Maybe it was his place to escape, where he did not think on work. Regardless of the truth of the matter it was still enjoyable to stand near the portrait and in some way join in thought alongside him. What made the moment all the more enjoyable was that I had just recently referenced a movie he was in. It was The Kingdom of Heaven, one of my favorite movies which maybe more relevant today than when it was released. In many ways his depiction in the drawing reminded me of his character in the film. A somber, intellectual, trying to solve what could possibly be an unsolvable problem.

Richard Cumberland, by Mitch


As we were given this assignment and we were walking around I really didn’t know what I was looking for. I knew we had to find a portrait that we were drawn to but I have never been drawn to a portrait in a museum or gallery before. However, as I was walking around I came across this portrait. Once I saw this portrait I was drawn into the world of the man in the red coat and pants as he was looking of as if he was in a daydream.

This portrait is of Richard Cumberland, a playwright from the mid-1700s. However, that is not what drew me into the portrait. The quality of what drew me in was how he was looking on into the distance almost as if he was thinking about something. It was almost as if he was thinking about a certain idea for a play is writing at that moment. It intrigued to know what idea had just popped into his head at that moment and what came of it once the portrait was finished.

Queen Elizabeth I, by Tyler

qe1I was instantly drawn to this portrait of the queen because of the sheer size of the painting and the dominance of her body. The painting itself is eight feet tall by five feet wide; just imagining the time and effort to paint the entire canvas brought chills to my body. Considering the canvas was bigger the artist, the craftsmanship from top to bottom is pristine. The qualities of the paint to make this portrait last this long in this condition is incredible.

When I first noticed this painting, I thought to myself, “look how small her waist actually is.” When I talked to Dr. Schmitz about it, she said that it was common for a woman to have a waist smaller than her head circumference for beauty. She has a big, dominating lower half of her body on the world, but a small, yet powerful, midriff area. I connected with this piece because much like there are standards today, there were standards then. The huge, and undoubtedly heavy, farthingale, the small waist, and the stiff posture are what it took to look authoritative. That has changed so much since then and it made me think about the history of clothing and the “looks” of those in power.

seerDerek Jarman (Seer), by Conner

There is a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London known as ‘SEER’ and it is a portrait of Derek Jarman. He was a film maker who lived from nineteen-forty-two till nineteen-ninety-four. He was a man living with AIDS and all the complications therein. This portrait was the last portrait he would sit for before his death to an AIDS related illness. It is a small and unassuming image that lies tucked away just within a doorway of one of the rooms at the National Portrait Gallery.

The image stands out from all the rest. It draws the eye from nearly any point in the room. This is true because the image is wreathed in a scarlet red that evokes in me thoughts of a red warning sign, a man with a shingles rash, or blood half dried. Within this partial frame exists the persons’ image. The picture itself looks more like a photo than a painting. Jarmans visage lays in black and white, surrounded by an ambiguous and misty background with nothing more in view than the body of the man in question. For a majority of the image there is a foggy dividing line between the scarlet wreath (which I take represents the AIDS virus which infiltrated and plagued his life) and the man himself.

However, towards the bottom of the image where the man’s torso connects to the edge of the painting the scarlet bleeds into the chest of the man as if it creeps towards his heart in a slow and malicious pace. The color seems to mask him. I get that feeling because in one spot the body of the person is still painted underneath and we can see that he is being covered by this evil encroaching color. To further the effect, the man’s face has a number of deformations. The right eye is sunken and has black marks above and below it. The left eye looks like it has some kind of growth beneath it, a white patch that cannot be identified as part of the person. The hair line recedes, and the mouth barley crooks enough to form a smile. You can tell from one glance that this man is dying.

Upon closer inspection there is a reverse written quote along his chest. Its barely visible to the viewer, but the information plague beside the portrait informed me that it says:

“Enjoy the luscious landscape of my wound … but Hurry! … Time meets us, and we are destroyed.”

This quote is significant beyond that which I can explain, but the most obvious and important part is that the man who sat for this portrait knew he was in the last days of his life. He wanted to leave something for people to remember him by, and so he left a portrait that did not cover up, shy from, or lie about the condition that his last days were in. We see him, his illness, and the product of a life lived long a weary, always hard at work trying to further his art.

Sir Francis Drake, by Kelly


I cannot say that my eye was drawn to any portrait. However, as I looked at the subject of each portrait, I saw each of the other portraits with regal queens and powerful nobles, and I recognized most of the names. The name Sir Francis Drake was the one name that stood out to me, as his name has been used in some modern media that I am familiar with. Being able to see a portrait, another piece of evidence that this man really existed, made the history seem that much more real, even though the media through which I first was introduced to his name was fictional.

Sir Francis Drake was the captain of the Golden Hind, the ship in which he traveled around the earth. His right hand is placed on a model of the globe, as though conquering its challenges again. It was easy for me to imagine Drake standing for this portrait proudly, having accomplished a magnificent thing for the time. While he was not the first to do so, navigating the globe was perilous, much of it still undiscovered by Europeans. While Drake is not well known, what he did is still extremely important. Despite the dangers that he knew about, he still braved the “new world” and was greatly rewarded for it. He was the sort of person who did similar things to famous or infamous explorers, but he did not do it first, and so his great accomplishment was overshadowed despite its extreme challenges. He was also a ruthless captain for the English as they fought the Spanish Armada.