Mystery portraits give up their secrets for new exhibition
Press release issued: 17 March 2010
A new National Portrait Gallery display of unseen paintings of 16th and 17th-century mystery figures opens at the National Trust’s Montacute House on 17 March. The exhibition draws on new research undertaken by History of Art MA students at the University of Bristol.
The exhibition draws on new research undertaken by History of Art MA students at the University of Bristol and provides the first opportunity to see these portraits, which have either been recently restored or not exhibited for over half a century.
The students, working with Dr Tatiana String and supervised by the Gallery’s 16th Century Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper, re-examined the portraits which all feature men and women whose identities are no longer known. They appear to depict courtiers, musicians, writers, soldiers and others who hoped to preserve their memory by sitting for a portrait.
The paintings were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery between 1858 and 1971. When the identity of the sitters was disproved or disputed, the paintings were often removed from display or lent to other collections. Recent conservation work and new research has meant that some portraits can now be re-identified.
Accompanying the portraits in the display, will be fantasy character sketches and fictional biographies commissioned by the Gallery from writers John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Sir Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters. These short fictional narratives respond to what can be seen in each portrait, picking up on details of the costume and pose in intriguing ways.
This is the second curatorial collaboration between MA students from the University of Bristol and the National Portrait Gallery after the success of the previous display, On the Nature of Women in 2008. The event has provided them with valuable experience in conducting original research at the Gallery’s Heinz Archive & Library, and in all the processes of staging a Gallery display, which involves the writing of text and captions.
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, said: “I am delighted that the Gallery will once again be working with the National Trust and the University of Bristol, this time bringing together some fascinating, unseen portraits from the Gallery’s collection and revealing their research into them.”
Dr Tatiana String, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art, University of Bristol, said: “Our unique collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust has attracted students to our course from Japan, Chile, Cyprus, Australia and the United States, as well as some of the most talented students from across the UK. Their research for this exhibition has uncovered important new ways of interpreting these ‘unknown’ portraits.”
Etsuko Shimona, a Japanese student on the course, said: “There are portraits whose identification is almost impossible to achieve due to the complex provenance, conditions and history. However, this difficulty is, in fact, a part of relish of curatorial research for me. The opportunity to work for the exhibition, Imagined Lives, in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery and with other students taught me not only scholarly approaches toward portraiture, but also opened my eyes to the practical, more methodical sides of curation.”
Anna Bonewitz, a student from Texas, USA, said: “What I have found most rewarding about researching these unidentified portraits is that I have become more aware of methods of artistic production used in the creation of Tudor portraits, which are often regarded solely for their biographical importance. When stripped of their biographically specific identity, these portraits become beautiful works of art which not only teach us a tremendous amount about the types of people which warranted representation in Tudor England, but can also be admired for their intrinsic aesthetic merits.”
Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1520-1640 runs from 17 March 2010-October 2011 at the National Trust’s Montacute House, Somerset.