Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of a Director

Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of a Director

Article excerpt

David Piper, director of the National Portrait Gallery 1964-67, was a brilliant historian and museum director who, while writing a book called The English Face, found that there's no such thing. It vanished like the smile on Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat.

Piper himself was disinclined to mastermind the much-needed radical reform of a musty old institution -- a challenge successfully embraced by his young colleague and successor, Roy Strong. Strong's Cecil Beaton show, a first for photography, drew previously undreamed of crowds. Today, attendance figures have risen to 1.6 million per annum. In the wake of the far-reaching Strong revolution, the gallery has expanded with the help of generous donors such as Sir Christopher Ondaatje. It seems to have gone from strength to strength, most obviously in its improved display and lighting -- under John Hayes, Charles Saumarez Smith and now Sandy Nairne, the director since 2002.

The current NPG chairman David Canadine, in his brief history of the gallery, mentions that Germaine Greer has 'denounced it as a place of second-rate art -- yet its purpose remains primarily historical . . . '. While many critics complain that much current portrait painting is too photographic, Nairne is bullish about today's portraitists in many media. 'I can spot three or four generations of excellent portrait painters who are coming through, ' he says, 'although they may not be in the forefront of Frieze Magazine.' He is full of praise for the abilities of many of his colleagues in various departments, which include the historic collections, research, large and small temporary exhibitions, lecture programmes, the publications department and the three outposts of the NPG in Yorkshire, Somerset and North Wales. Their professionalism allows him to concentrate on his own priorities. One of these is building up the portrait fund. 'It really matters that we build up our ability to acquire great portraits. It's now up at £2.5 million. I want to get it up to £5.6 and then up towards £10 million.' While interviewing him the thought occurred to me that perhaps the long Oscar Wilde-generated battle, between arty types and sporty types, may have been resolved in the energetic dual personality of this alert and athletic-looking director. Nairne possesses what P.G. Wodehouse could have described as 'rugged good looks'. He read history as an undergraduate and has acquired his considerable knowledge and experience of art while working at the Tate, the Arts Council and at the ICA -- where he was noted for promoting women artists.

It's no surprise to discover that in the early 1970s Nairne rowed for Oxford University in the Isis crew or that he is strongly in favour of the NPG's fairly recent policy of featuring popular sporting heroes, such as David Beckham -- even though the iconic footballer is captured fast asleep rather than 'bending it' near the goalpost, in Sam Taylor-Wood's popular video portrait of him. Stardom for sportsmen is something that neither Oscar Wilde nor Nairne's sober 19th-century predecessors at the NPG would ever have countenanced. As Nairne puts it, 'Our Victorian forebears didn't really regard sport as an interesting area of achievement.'

But what about great fighting commanders who would have been grist to Reynolds's mill? I mentioned three prominent living soldiers who seem to have been neglected by the NPG. …

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