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From Courtesans to Conceptual Artists

Women in the frame at London’s re-vamped National Portrait Gallery

By Margie MacKinnon

Issue 3, Spring/Summer 2023

Flavia Frigeri, Chanel Curator for the National Portrait Gallery in London. Ph. Isabelle Young

After a three-year renovation, London’s National Portrait Gallery reopened on June 22nd, 2023. NPG’s Chanel Curator for the Collection, Dr. Flavia Frigeri, spoke to Margie MacKinnon about the Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture project supported by the CHANEL Culture Fund), which aims to highlight the often overlooked stories of individual women who have shaped British history and culture.

At the start of this project, what was the balance between male and female representation at the NPG?

“There were approximately 50,000 men in the collection and about 16,000 women,” Frigeri points out, “so there was a big disparity. The NPG is a history museum which means that the sitter always comes first: who is depicted in the portrait is always more important than who painted the portrait. Portraiture is something that is its own micro-environment within the macro sphere of art. Historically, the people who would have their portrait painted were people of means, the upper class. Even the women who were depicted by male artists were often from a very specific class – so it is already creating a tiered system.”

“The goal of enhancing the visibility of women as part of the re-organisation of the NPG,” says Frigeri, “is very much a collective endeavour. I have been working with a team of curators, organised by historical period, and they were already thinking about the place of women within the re-hang. The way visibility is going to manifest itself is that, obviously, you’re going to have some of the ‘greatest hits’ on the walls. You can expect to see Elizabeth I, you can expect to see Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. But, then, what we have tried to do as a team has been to weave in stories of women that are perhaps more unexpected. The difficulty is that sometimes we don’t necessarily have the best portraits for the best stories.

“We are also thinking about how to educate people in terms of how to read portraits because, naturally – and this is something I also fall prey to – you walk into a room, you see a portrait in a gilded frame and immediately you think that is the most important person in the room. Whereas it is more of a struggle to see a small photograph, with no gilding, as being in the same league. So [when the image isn’t enough] we will be using other kinds of media that will help to tell the story in a more nuanced way.”

Apart from royalty, who was the first woman in the collection?

“The first woman in the collection,” Frigeri notes, “was a courtesan … I recently gave a talk in Berlin about this and I was explaining how the first man in the collection was Shakespeare. Then I had to admit to the fact that the first woman was, yes … which doesn’t take away from her as a woman. The founding fathers of the NPG were very specific when they wrote their constitution and I should stress fathers – no woman was involved. A portrait had to depict someone of worthiness, achievement, recognition and fame … and for decades women didn’t really fit any of those categories, unless they were royal or attached to the royals somehow.

Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess de Gramont by John Giles Eccardt, after Sir Peter Lely

(18th century, based on a work of c. 1663) © National Portrait Gallery, London

When did the collection start opening up?

“Until the 1960’s you could only show the portrait of someone who had been dead for at least ten years. The idea was that you needed ten years to be sure that the achievements of that person were lasting. But this rule was lifted in the 1960’s as the need to include more contemporary artists became apparent. So that is when the collection started becoming a bit more eclectic in range. In the 70’s the trend was to collect mostly women in the arts, so we have dancers, we have writers, a lot of actors … there weren’t that many women in science – that’s a big gap.”

Is it possible there were fewer women scientists because their male colleagues were taking credit for their work?

“Yes,” Frigeri agrees, “there was some of that and it’s something we have been looking into. We recently acquired a portrait of Anne McLaren, one of the women who was instrumental in developing the science necessary for IVF. She was working with her husband at University College London for a long time and was less known than him. McLaren is an example of someone that we have recently been able to bring into the collection. For me, this is important because it is a way to push against the grain of the founding fathers and say, look, these are women worthy of that recognition.”

Did the advent of photography have an impact on the collection?

“It made a huge difference,” says Frigeri, “because, in a way, photography is the most emancipatory medium of them all. Photography allowed women to establish their own portrait studios. So, even if they had the ambition to go on and do more avant-garde photography, they were able to support themselves financially through their studio. The affordability of photography drove up the demand for portraits, so it became a sustainable business. We have great examples of women like Rita Martin and Lallie Charles establishing a portrait studio called The Look which was around the corner from Regent’s Park and was incredibly successful. Alice Hughes had a studio on Gower Street up in Bloomsbury and, at one point, she employed 50 women assistants. We have many of these women photographers in the collection, so it is a very strong area, dating from the 1900’s. It all began with Julia Margaret Cameron doing in photography what the Pre-Raphaelites were doing in painting.”

Another aspect of the project focusses on the acquisition of new works by women. What were your guiding principles in choosing these works?

“I thought about how I could make acquisitions that were relevant enough and substantial enough in the long term without ‘breaking the bank’. What were the things that the portrait gallery wouldn’t usually collect because they wouldn’t necessarily be seen as priorities? There was a focus on self-portraiture, created by artists who were working with a very feminist conceptual slant. These are self-portraits, but they are doing lots of other things on the side.

“In Susan Hiller’s work she was taking her self-portrait using different photobooth machines around London and then collecting them. The idea is – she was taking agency away from herself and lending it to the machine, and each photobooth produces a very different kind of image. There is this piecing together of mechanically produced images, but also the suggestion that no person is a single image. We are all made up of lots of different layers. So, there is a conceptual element to this work. If you were to see it at the Tate you would probably read it with very conceptual language, but here you’re just looking at a portrait that is not a traditional portrait.

Preparatory study for Divided Self by Rose Finn-Kelcey, 1974 © The Estate of Rose Finn-Kelcey.

Courtesy of Kate MacGarry Gallery. Purchased with kind support from the CHANEL Culture Fund

for ‘Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture’, 2022

“Rose Finn-Kelcey’s self-portrait is similar. You cannot see it from this image but there is a cut in the middle of the image because this was the pre-Adobe days and she had to glue and stitch together two images. This is her seated at Marble Arch at Speaker’s Corner. In this case, she is very much thinking about the fact that women have traditionally been left out of all the places where public speaking happens. She is reclaiming this space for women in terms of public speaking, but she is also thinking that the absence of that space has meant that women had a lot more existential, private speaking happening within themselves – so it’s a conversation, or internal dialogue, between the two selves.

“I was able to acquire this beautiful small portrait of Celia Paul,” Frigeri continues, “and then this wonderful portrait by Everlyn Nicodemus called Sjalvportratt, Akersberga. This is a self-portrait she made in 1982 when she was living in Sweden and had recently given birth to a young daughter and was struggling with her marriage. She paints all of these different faces to suggest the many faces she needs to wear at once – mother, artist, lover and so forth. This is actually the first self-portrait by a black artist to enter the collection.

“And then there is Maeve Gilmore, an exceptional artist. I love the intensity of her expression and I love that she is holding with such assertiveness this piece of charcoal, and just looks at you. And looking at you really says, this is my place as an artist. These are some of the works that I have been bringing into the collection with a focus on self-portraiture. They are small in number in terms of acquisitions but they are quite radical in starting the discourse and taking it in different directions.”

With the National Portrait Gallery's reopening, more than 200 portraits of women made after 1900 and over 100 portraits created during that time by women are exhibited. Adding to that number will be the newly commissioned Work in Progress, a group portrait of 133 notable women created by Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake.


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