Pride of the Realm

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

The life-size painting of Dame Judi Dench, who portrayed the Virgin Queen in the 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love," was done by Alessandro Raho in 2004. National Portrait Gallery, London
Known as the "Ditchley Portrait," this stylized depiction of Elizabeth I at age 59 was painted by artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c. 1592. National Portrait Gallery, London
"A national portrait gallery is a living image of how a country sees itself," says Sandy Nairne, director of London's National Portrait Gallery. Above, J. K. Rowling in a 2005 portrait by Stuart Pearson Wright. National Portrait Gallery, London
James Joyce, 1935, by Jacques-à‰mile Blanche. National Portrait Gallery, London
Oscar Wilde, 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. National Portrait Gallery, London
"This exhibition is a powerful example of how a portrait gallery puts a face on history," says Washington, D.C.'s National Portrait Gallery director Marc Pachter. Above, Queen Victoria (who cultivated an Indian atmosphere in her court after being proclaimed Empress of India in 1876) photographed in 1893 in her garden at Frogmore House, Windsor, working on state papers and attended by her servant Karim Abdul. National Portrait Gallery, London
The Rolling Stones' Mick (Sir Michael) Jagger captured in a 1973 photograph by Jane Bown. Jane Bown
The dashing poet George Gordon Byron, at age 25, in an 1813 painting (detail) by Richard Westall. National Portrait Gallery, London
Photographer Jason Bell's portrait of four-time Academy Award-nominated actress Kate Winslet was taken in 2001 when she was 25. National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Adà¨s, one of the best-known composers of his generation, was depicted at age 31 by artist Phil Hale in 2002. The result of a seven-month collaboration between artist and sitter, the painting shows Adà¨s exercising his right hand, injured in a minor fall. National Portrait Gallery, London
Tony Blair (born 1953), by Eamonn McCabe Eamonn McCabe
Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), by Robert Walker National Portrait Gallery, London
Charles Dickens (1812–1870), by Daniel Maclise Tate, London
Horatio Nelson (1758–1805), by Sir William Beechey National Portrait Gallery, London
William Shakespeare (1564–1616), attributed to John Taylor National Portrait Gallery, London
The Somerset House Conference, by an unknown artist National Portrait Gallery, London

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."

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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