Great Britons - Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, London

A National Portrait Gallery is a museum of people: a collection of stories, as well as a living image of how a country sees itself.

The ambitions for Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, founded in 1856, were more universal than the existing collections of portraits in aristocratic families or institutions. It was a bold idea: to form a collection of those who “have or are contributing to British history or culture.” The importance of the individual remains the guiding principle. The Collection has developed not simply through the additive process of portraits being donated, purchased, or commissioned, but also through taking a broader view of achievement. A soccer player and a popular children’s novelist are now included alongside a great actor, a scientist, or a social reformer.

Included here are some of the finest works from the Collection, spanning five hundred years of British history. This is only a fragment of the more than 10,000 portraits in the Primary collection and many more in the Reference collection, which can now be viewed on the web at The aim of the exhibition is to show the vitality and variety of the sitters and styles of portraiture. The increasingly wide range of those portrayed reflects the growing acknowledgment of issues of identity and cultural diversity and the Gallery’s desire to work actively in creating new portraits through its program of commissions.

“Great Britons” is organized by the National Portrait Gallery, London, and has been made possible by generous support from Lillian and Jon Lovelace and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

View the online exhibit