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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Mazzola


Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Just opposite St. Martin in the Fields is a place where landscapes and dreamy panoramas are missing. Portraits instead fill the rooms; millions of eyes observe visitors and look deeply into their souls.

The National Portrait Gallery is not just Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s eternal love representation. It’s not just the place where it’s possible capturing Newton’s face after the apple fell on his head – no. It is the place where every person has the same importance.

A white caftan adorns the face of a man coming from far away, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is a man that was freed from slavery and gained success for his intelligence and charisma.

His look was captured by the trendiest portraitist of the time, William Hoare (1733). Diallo was also the first freed slave and African man to be portrayed in British art history.

The colours are simple but his eyes are the real gems in this picture; they look tranquil as if finally his persona was recognised, as if his name could be finally pronounced, as if that man who is panting is finally seeing him as an individual as important as everyone.

In the gallery, large, small and rectangular pictures complete the mosaic representing the historical path of British society.

Visitors take a seat and start drawing what they see around. It’s a magical atmosphere; the long and narrow corridor perfectly fits the alignment of the minds depicting the marble statues.

Other faces stand out from the rest: one is Chitcqua (Tan-che-qua) by John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-41). Even today, Asian men are misrepresented and it’s very rare seeing them on film posters or magazine covers; instead, this fierce sculptor from Canton (Guangzhou) took his place on the wall becoming the exception.

The painting by Mortimer is a cultural mix between the Asiatic features, the traditional Chinese clothes of the subject and the technique used which is inspired by the Neapolitan painter Salvator Rosa.

Some British men made history, some changed the way things are perceived.

From being a black man coming from America to one of the highest paid actors of the time, Ira Aldridge’s face painted by James Northcore (1826), is the image that is now associated with Othello. It’s not only the story of a jealous character but also that of a man who wasn’t accepted. In fact, while the UK didn’t do him justice the rest of Europe – and the rest of us- did.

The National Portrait Gallery is the perfect house to these individuals that travelled around the world affirming their cosmopolitan lifestyle. In fact, the gallery has changed location multiple times between 1856 and 1896 . Its marvellous archive of portraits is the largest in the world with over 200,000 works and 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th century to the present day.

It’s incredible to think how many non-British citizens are now a symbol of empowerment, freedom and diversity. Imagine having the chance to talk to them or being that artist who spent hours with them in order to depict every single detail.

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