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Pride of the Realm

An extraordinary collection of pictures has traveled from the United Kingdom's national portrait gallery to ours

After the British artist Alessandro Raho won a commission from the National Portrait Gallery, London to paint Dame Judi Dench's portrait, he made an appointment to meet the actress at the museum to discuss arrangements. As it happened, she arrived before he did and was waiting for him in the foyer. Seeing her standing there, he knew at once that was the pose he wanted. So he painted her in street clothes against a plain white background, hoping, he says, "to trap something I saw in her while she waited... unaware of me."

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The radically simple, life-size likeness is one of 60 paintings, photographs and mixed-media works on loan to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. until September 3. From Henry VIII to Charles Darwin to Mick Jagger, "Great Britons" spans five centuries and reflects the 150-year-old London museum's dedication to what director Sandy Nairne calls "the importance of the individual."

Today, one of Britain's most celebrated authors is J. K. Rowling, creator of the blockbuster Harry Potter novels, and Stuart Pearson Wright's unconventional, illusionistic portrait befits a writer of fantasy. "I was keen to add something unusual to the National Portrait Gallery's collection," says Pearson Wright, 31. Inspired by 18th-century toy theaters and the boxes of artist Joseph Cornell, he created a three-dimensional, diorama-like work whose strange perspective and trompe l'oeil technique convey a sense of tension and mystery.

Among the more traditional works is an 1813 portrait by Richard Westall of George Gordon Byron at age 25, just a year after the publication of the initial two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, his first popular success. The romantic rendering makes clear why Byron's dashing profile and tousled hair contributed to his fame.

The portraits, all told, have an arresting intimacy. Marc Pachter, director of Washington, D.C.'s National Portrait Gallery, says the exhibition "introduces you to people you have only heard or read about. It's almost as if you were invited to some kind of extraordinary dinner party to meet these individuals. It's a dinner date with history."

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